State officials are fine tuning their oil and gas regulations in an effort to help Nevada join the nationwide hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom.
The Nevada Division of Minerals on Friday hosted a third and final public workshop aimed at tweaking its oversight of the controversial extraction process, in which well operators use a pressurized slurry of water, sand and chemicals to tap into deposits of natural gas and oil trapped in rock deep underground.
Fracking opponents fear leaky fracking wells could poison groundwater and even cause earthquakes if drilled too close to fault lines.
Proposed additions to regulations enacted under 2013’s Senate Bill 390 would require well operators to assess fracking impacts on the water table before, during and after drilling and notify the public two weeks before bringing a new drilling site to town.
Drillers also would be required to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process in an online database posted at www.fracfocusdata.org.
Officials with Houston-based Noble Energy, which owns and operates exploratory fracking wells on 370,000 acres of ranch land near Wells, some 400 miles north of Las Vegas, say the process is rigorously regulated.
They say fracking holds the promise of helping make the United States one of the largest oil exporters in the world.
The company hopes to start drawing oil out of its first two Elko County wells early next month.
Noble plans to invest around $130 million to develop seven other permitted wells in the northeastern part of the state over the next several years, with an eye toward producing up to 50,000 barrels per day by early 2015.
Nevada produced 367,994 barrels of oil in 2012, about half the total drawn out of the Great Plains’ massive Bakken shale formation every day.
Company officials say fracking is completely safe if done correctly.
So long as it involves water, however, Sierra Club organizer Levon Budding isn’t sure there is a good way to do it.
“We really don’t think it’s a good idea to be pumping millions of gallons of water out of the ground in the middle of a drought,” Budding told state mineral officials Friday at the Grant Sawyer State Building in Las Vegas.
Christian Gerlach and a dozen other fracking opponents shared Budding’s water conservation concerns.
Gerlach, with advocacy group Nevadans Against Fracking, said each new fracking well would need up to 5 million gallons of water to keep up and running. He also worries that regulators haven’t done enough to ensure that chemically tainted fracking fluid couldn’t escape the wells’ concrete-lined walls and poison groundwater or upset fragile seismic faults, leading to an earthquake.
“We need to be able to monitor anywhere where they’re going to be drilling,” Gerlach said. “We don’t need to put our water, our communities at risk for this company.”
Minerals Division Administrator Richard Perry says the fracking process requires only one to two acre feet of water per well, enough to support “a single alfalfa pivot,” or 20 to 40 households annually.
He said there are no known fracking-friendly drill sites in Southern Nevada.
Noble Energy executive Kevin Vorhaben counts fracking rules devised by Perry and state legislators among the most stringent in the United States. He also tied reports of fracking related earthquake activity to the type of “continuous flow” wells Noble doesn’t plan to build in Nevada.
Vorhaben said his company would be happy to eventually build thousands of wells in the northeastern part of the state. But so far, it doesn’t like as if they have stumbled upon a bonanza beneath the sagebrush near Wells.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Vorhaben said. “We’re hoping to get back to drilling soon, but we’ve got to meet regulations at the state and federal level and support permits at the local and county level as well. It’s really not a complicated process, but it can be slow.”
Public comments on proposed fracking rule changes can be submitted through March 28 to the Nevada Division of Minerals online at http://minerals.state.nv.us/.
Contact reporter James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDeHaven.