Note: This is the final installment in a series about the energy industry in Weld County. Click the links for the other installments: Part One (published May 30), Part Two (published June 12) and Part Three (published June 30).
The state of Colorado has implemented significant regulatory goals to reduce pollution and safety risks associated with oil and gas production, but industry professionals say they’ve been working on this for several years.
Companies across the globe have developed and implemented new technology primarily over two decades, including horizontal drilling, leak detection and repair, more efficient machinery and digital monitoring.
Colorado producers, including Chevron and PDC Energy, have deployed these new techniques in an effort to reduce their impact on the environment and surrounding communities.
“I think it’s really important to continue to decrease our footprint and increase the speed in which potential issues are resolved,” PDC senior asset engineer Brian Cocchiere said. “We want a full line of sight into our potential operational impacts. It’s really amazing to see how far we’ve come in these areas within the last decade.”
Noteworthy operational and mechanical upgrades
Cocchiere was initially drawn to the industry because of its technology and has worked to make the process cleaner and more efficient. He works on regulatory policy implementation and developing plans to reduce the company’s impact.
The first significant change Cocchiere saw within the industry was the move to horizontal drilling. He said sites used to feature multiple vertical drills in a small area. Now, the company can drill up to 3 miles horizontally, developing 4 or 5 miles worth of minerals with one surface location.
PDC reduced oil and gas land use by 85% in some locations. Cocchiere said horizontal drilling and the fewer number of wells helps the company with land reclamation, the process by which operators restore sites after production, as well.
Chevron’s Mustang Comprehensive Drilling Plan, approved by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, includes development on 64,000 acres in southeast Weld County. The ability to drill horizontally allows the company to combine facilities and reduce surface impact and emissions.
Paula Beasley, Chevron communications adviser, said the plan helps guide long-term development around seasonal crops, wildlife patterns and other external forces.
The company also includes the “latest technology” at these facilities, Beasley said.
Compression engines and drilling rigs are often powered by electricity. Beasley said using electricity significantly reduces the “ozone precursor emissions,” such as nitrous oxides.
Chevron and PDC both use solar panels to help power its facilities and drilling sites.
Additionally, both companies improved the design of their facilities and rely on tankless projects, which transport processed hydrocarbons through pipelines instead of trucks. This reduces emissions, traffic and the risk of leaks.
Beasley said the newest Chevron facilities in Colorado produce 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than older designs. The company can also produce the same volume on 7.5 surface acres as it once did using 400 acres.
Chevron has eliminated more than 152 million miles of truck traffic due to the tankless operations as well, Beasley said.
PDC boasts a 26% decrease of greenhouse gas emission intensity from 2019 to 2020 and a 32% decrease in methane emission intensity during the same time period.
Another way PDC reduces its emissions is through improved regular monitoring. PDC inspects the sights, sounds and smells of its locations to predict and prevent leaks or other damage. The data obtained helps operators track levels of volatile organic compounds that can cause serious health effects at certain levels.
Infrared cameras and temperature guns detect tank fluid levels and production. These can also be used for leak detection and repair, commonly known as LDAR.
One of the largest changes that the average resident might not know about, however, is the reliance on improved software and digital connectivity.
While many monitoring processes still occur on-site, companies have strengthened their remote capabilities.
PDC has 24/7 field monitoring that allows employees to check sites and data from any location. For example, some devices are used to detect increased levels of VOCs or noise in real time and actively manage the situation.
Cocchiere said the company is testing a pilot program at one of its new sites that uses infrared cameras and artificial intelligence. The machinery uses algorithms that can supposedly detect gas leaks, monitor tank levels and provide security. He said the program is designed to give employees another way to respond immediately to any on-site situations.
Virtually all remote monitoring solutions can be accessed through mobile applications.
Chevron operates a 24/7 control center to monitor its projects across the state.
Other companies use sonar, aerial, underwater and virtual reality systems in their planning and monitoring. These are expensive and often reserved for major sites.
“These advancements that we’re seeing are focused on reducing any of our potential impacts, and protecting public health, safety, welfare, environment and wildlife resources,” Cocchiere said. “What we’ve done the last decade, I’m really looking forward to what the next decade brings.”
The Tribune contacted Extraction Oil and Gas, Occidental and Atmos Energy for this story. None responded to multiple interview requests.
GREELEY, CO – AUG. 20: The Mustang Ranch oil and gas site in Weld County is seen in a photo from Chevron Colorado. The project was initially developed by Noble Energy, but the company has since been purchased by Chevron. (Courtesy of Chevron)
Driving progress forward
As the industry moves forward, companies are setting goals to continue making progress.
PDC wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 60% and reduce its methane emissions 50% by 2025.
Chevron plans to invest $3 billion by 2028 to “advance our energy transition strategy,” Beasley said. This means lowering carbon intensity, investing in more renewables and investing in low-carbon tech.
“As a company, we take actions that drive measurable progress toward our commitments,” Beasley said in a statement. “This means reducing the carbon intensity of our operations and assets, increasing the use of renewables and offsets in support of our business, and investing in low-carbon technologies that can enable commercial solutions. These actions will make energy and supply chains more sustainable, helping industries and our customers realize their own lower-carbon goals.”
The state of Colorado has shared its desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and completely transition to “clean” energy by 2040.
Industry professionals previously told the Tribune that this is likely not possible. In fact, oil and gas is expected to remain a primary energy industry — even with less carbon — worldwide. The International Energy Agency estimates that roughly 50% of the world’s energy production will come from oil and natural gas.
The Atlantic Council said in a report it’s possible to meet dependency reduction goals, but the likelihood of success is predicated more on politics than technology.
“Affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy is essential to achieving a more prosperous and sustainable world for all people,” Beasley said. “Oil and natural gas have a vital role to play in any global transition of energy by providing scalable, lower-carbon solutions that meet growing energy demands.”
Continued development concerns
Even with ongoing discussions about impact mitigation and continued emissions reduction, some people maintain concerns about the industry.
Residents in Erie and Greeley spoke to the Tribune in June about their experiences living fewer than 2,000 feet from oil and gas developments.
Geoff Winterbourne and Lowell Lewis both said they understand the significance of the industry, but knowing the importance doesn’t stop the traffic or pollution.
“Putting mitigation measures into place and adopting new equipment standards is certainly better than doing nothing,” League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans Deputy Director Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson said in a statement. “None of that changes the fact that oil and exploration and production is one of the highest sources of dangerous, harmful emissions in the state.”
LOGIC represents Coloradans who have been affected by oil and gas developments, including the residents in Erie.
Forkes-Gudmundson said the industry is “harmful by nature” and technology won’t change it.
Additionally, certain regulations may not apply to projects that have been completed or have received permitting. This was seen when the Biden Administration halted permit distribution on federal lands. It only affected projects requesting permitting, not ones that had already been awarded.
“The best and only certain way to clean up our air, reduce pollution and cease the harm from oil and gas development is (to) decrease production and begin as soon as possible a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.
When asked how they would respond to continued concerns about the industry, Cocchiere and Beasley said the employees are also community members. These people are invested in the places they live and work, and they’re affected by industry decisions like everyone else.
Cocchiere said PDC is focused on “doing right by the communities” and encourages honest dialogue between stakeholders. Meanwhile, Chevron wants to provide cleaner energy, continue advancement and be a good neighbor.
“This goes beyond continuously improving our operations. We believe investing in basic human needs, education and training and local business development is important to strengthening communities and promoting greater economic and social stability,” Beasley said. “Through contributions, sponsorships, in-kind donations, partnerships, and volunteerism, we seek to make a difference in Colorado and our Weld County communities.”