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Environment | Energy

Natural Gas Drillers Eye the Northwest

Reports of burning tap water and contaminated aquifers have followed the natural gas industry to the Pacific Northwest, where some drilling could involve the controversial practice of “hydraulic fracturing.”

For millions of years, vast deposits of natural gas have been trapped beneath much of the continental United States. Only in the past decade have energy companies possessed an

title=”extraction technique”>extraction technique that allows them to free a good deal of the previously untapped reserves. This gas rush has sent federal, state and local lawmakers scrambling to reassess their drilling regulations.

The gas boom has been most intense in about 30 states — from New Mexico and Wyoming in the West to New York and Pennsylvania in the East.

More in This Report

A closer look at gas well activity in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

But what about the Pacific Northwest? Gas is trapped underground in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, too. Efforts to tap more of the Northwest’s natural gas are just getting underway. Current production is a tiny fraction of what states in Appalachia, the Rockies, and other regions are pumping out. But there are signs this natural gas rush isn’t completely passing by the Northwest.

In western Idaho’s Payette County, seven gas wells are ready to produce once a pipeline and processing facility come on line. And drilling that employed hydraulic fracturing was undertaken on at least nine wells since 2005 near Oregon’s southern coast.

(View Pacific Northwest Gas Well Sites in a larger map)

Coming against the backdrop of reports of environmental problems and public health risks as the result of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in other parts of the country, some Northwesterners are bracing for the gas drillers’ arrival.

“They’re going to make their way in here. And so … I want to make sure the rules that are going to be in place are rules that are going to protect people,” says Weiser, Idaho resident Amanda Buchanan, who has attended the rulemaking meetings for gas in her western Idaho county.

Although some Northwest residents like Buchanan share the same concerns about gas drilling as do citizens in the gas-boom states, the drilling operations here are largely above sandstone-rich subsurfaces. That, the industry says, is an important difference from the shale and coal-bed regions.

Most nightmare reports of tainted groundwater, air pollution and contaminated soil come from states where gas is trapped in shale, a dense rock formation. To free the gas, companies drill vertically past water aquifers and other layers of earth until they reach gas-rich shale. Once in shale, they drill horizontally, perforate their pipes and inject a highly pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals. The process breaks up the shale and the sand stays in the gaps, allowing the gas moves through this porous material and into the pipes.

Bridge Energy Inc. operates the seven wells in western Idaho, which are based in porous sandstone. The company says it doesn’t need to be drilled horizontally. Nor does sandstone need to be fractured and flushed with pressurized water and chemicals in the same way shale or coal beds must be to move the gas to the surface.

Bridge officials say they’ll need to inject chemicals to conduct what they’ve termed “mini-fracs” on a relatively small scale so the gas can flow to the surface.

“We are not doing anything that is harmful,” says Ed Davies, president of Bridge Energy Inc. “This is not the shale-type of frack.”

Davies says his company’s version of fracking will be limited to breaking through the mud that becomes lodged in the well bottom’s sandstone as a result of the drilling process.

 Bridge Illustration small jpg

(Source: Bridge Energy presentation to state regulators.)

Bridge Energy officials have promised to monitor groundwater near its gas wells.

Bridge wouldn’t be the first company to frack in the Northwest. A few years ago, a now-defunct Canadian company hired Halliburton Services to inject a pressurized nitrogen mix into coal bed wells in Coos County, Oregon, raising serious concerns for salmon spawning streams (See related story).

Not all gas production in the Northwest requires fracking. Two companies have been pumping gas from sandstone since the 1980s in a remote area of northwest Oregon.

In the long term, what happens in the Pacific Northwest will depend on the natural gas market and the ability of companies to convince government regulators that their work isn’t going to foul water and other resources. Many see natural gas as a promising fuel of the future, plentiful and cleaner than coal.

If the current level of activity is any indication, then western Idaho is the Northwest’s most promising location to tap into this energy source.

Before any fracking takes place there, however, the wells’ owner, Bridge Energy, must apply for a permit from the Idaho State Department of Lands, says state Minerals Manager, Eric Wilson.

Although the company has not yet applied for a permit, it has given the state a list of fluids it wants to inject and estimates its work will require 714 barrels or 24,491 gallons, of fluid per well.

“What the state of Idaho doesn’t know, and probably the companies don’t know, is what materials will come out with the injected materials,” Wilson says. “Will it be radioactive? Will it contain lead or other dangerous natural elements? No one knows, so there likely will be some kind of monitoring when the injection begins.”

Idaho’s temporary fracking regulations mirror those of Wyoming, but state rulemakers plan to rewrite Idaho’s gas rules this summer.

(Reporting, writing and mapping for this report by Bonnie Stewart. Reporting, audio, photos and video by Aaron Kunz.)

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