by Bea Ferrigno

Despite Rio Grande County’s efforts to safeguard regional aquifers, and First Liberty Energy’s (FLE) indication that fracking was not part of their plan, an exploration well near Del Norte was fracked on April 13 and 14, a few days beyond the required 48-hour notice.

Widespread concern about possible effects of oil and gas exploration and development on valley aquifers prompted Rio Grande County (RGC) to commission a hydrogeological study that resulted in FLE’s acceptance of more stringent conditions than those required by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which had issued a permit for the well in October 2012. According to a report in the Valley Courier, representatives of FLE, speaking at a January 16 public hearing on the well application, maintained that the well was expected to produce without fracking and that “There is no fracking planned.” They also noted, however, that if they decided to frack, they would have 48 hours to inform COGCC. Rio Grande county tabled the application in order to study several documents including the lengthy hydrogeological report (see the Eagle, February 2013 at The RG commissioners were required to make a decision at the February 13 meeting and approved the application at that time.

The FLE well was drilled and cased to some 9,000 feet and no water was encountered in the process. The “pay zones” that were later fracked are at undisclosed depths, but well below the Conejos Formation and any sources of fresh water. The shales that hold oil and gas also hold small pockets of water that is released in the fracking process; this water is often brackish or downright saline and is either treated and reused or disposed of in special wells licensed for the purpose.

During the week of April 8 when the news of imminent fracking got out, Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) advised  the RGCC to file a preliminary injunction to prevent the frack, but that action might have provoked a countersuit and was not taken. Also, as a statement from RGCC on April 11 makes clear, the “County only has jurisdiction over above-ground issues and the State of Colorado has jurisdiction over ‘down hole’ or below-ground” operations.

Some 410,000 gallons (about 1.2 acre-feet) of water were purchased by the well operators from the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District (SLVWCD), whose manager, Mike Gibson, explained that the district routinely sells water for one-time commercial or industrial uses such as dust mitigation during highway construction. The SLVWCD has water in storage for these purposes as a service to the Rio Grande basin, so the sale had no effect on irrigators nor on the flow in the Rio Grande.

Fracking fluid consists mostly of water, with sand and chemicals, some food-grade, added; the list of chemicals used should eventually be available at

Charles Spielman, a geologist with oil and gas background, told Ms. Canaly that the recent well treatment was probably  a “test frac” and that the well may not actually produce, despite FLE’s record of 100% productivity from numerous wells in Oklahoma. Mr. Spielman also opined that the well, near the abandoned Jynifer well, is not in the area most likely to be productive.  It turns out he was correct in his opinion as  it was  learned on April 27 that the well did not produce and was plugged.

At present the COGCC has approved only one other exploration well in Rio Grande County, the Dan A. Hughes well near San Francisco creek. It is on Bureau of Land Management property and so will have to meet National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements as well as those of RGC. The COGCC regularly inspects well sites, both during drillling and production. Inspections prior to the recent frac noted no violations, but on April 15, after the fracking, “unsatisfactory” cleanup was noted, but no actual violation.

It remains to be seen what will now happen at the privately-owned, and therefore exempt from NEPA, First Liberty site northwest of Del Norte. The response to a request for an update from Peterson Energy, identified as owner in COGCC records, was that “The owner of the well wishes to release no information at this time.”

Locally, awareness of what challenges fracking might bring to an area perennially short of water is rapidly growing. A petition is being circulated in opposition to any gas or oil drilling in the valley and the SLVEC will be holding public participation events together with a group from Del Norte, Families for the Valley’s Future. Several videos such as Gasland, Fracknation, and TruthLand examine the risks of oil and gas extraction methods and can be found online, along with The Life of an Onshore Well: Finding and Producing Tight or Shale Gas & Oil ( shell/shell-businesses/onshore.html and the COGCC website’s hot topics and FAQ. Anyone concerned about fracking should read the March 2013 National Geographic article on The New Oil Landscape in North Dakota where a rural agricultural community  has seen devastating changes due to split estate development with horizontal wells and fracking. Check these resources out—the frac at First Liberty is a done deed, but the valley public will soon have opportunities for input on the Dan A. Hughes application.

There is no information at this time if First Liberty Energy plans to drill or frack any future wells in the San Luis Valley.  The issue of fracking in the San Luis Valley is still unresolved.

Bea Ferrigno writes on water and related issues in the San Luis Valley. She can be reached at

Any further updates will be posted on The Crestone Eagle website: