CHEYENNE — If the size of the crowd inside the Storey Auditorium on Thursday night is any indication, folks in Laramie County have a keen interest in local oil production.
Several hundred people packed the auditorium for an informational presentation about the oil and gas industry put on by state regulatory agencies and industry representatives.
This likely comes as a surprise to no one: Oil is big business in Wyoming, and production activity locally has increased in recent years.
There are more than 600 oil and gas-related companies operating in the state, employing more than 25,000 people. This is according to John Robitaille with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the state’s largest oil industry trade group.
“These are very good, high-paying jobs. These people live in Wyoming, they work in Wyoming and they spend their money in Wyoming,” Robitaille said.
But aside from the economic impact, which most agree is a positive thing for the state, the oil industry has impacts on Wyoming’s environment that require regulation.
This is where state agencies like the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Engineer’s Office come in.
About 42 percent of oil production in the state comes from horizontal drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, according to Mark Watson with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
In simple terms, these extraction methods involve pumping water and chemicals deep into the ground, and the processes raise concerns about groundwater contamination.
In order to monitor and mitigate this possible contamination, Watson said oil companies must test the quality of water wells near drilling sites prior to breaking ground and then twice after drilling.
If pollutants are found in the water, the state is able to levy fines against offending drilling operations.
“Enforcement is not a foreign word to us,” said Kevin Frederick with DEQ’s water quality division.
It’s not just water quality that has the potential to be affected by oil production, it’s also water quantity.
Fracking operations require an enormous volume of water, which was a concern to some at Thursday’s meeting because the county’s aquifer has been in a state of slow depletion for decades.
In an effort to avoid exacerbating the groundwater problem, the State Engineer has begun issuing temporary water use agreements for oil producers.
“The purpose of a temporary water use agreement is to create a net-zero impact on the water resources. So, we aren’t using any more water than is already being used for some other use,” said Lisa Lindemann with the State Engineer’s office.
In essence, an oil company can come to an agreement with a local farmer to take over their water supply for a period of one or two years. That water would then be used for oil production rather than agriculture for that period, resulting in no net increase in water usage.
The state also attempts to regulate air pollution created by oil activities.
Permits are issued by DEQ that set limits on air pollution emissions, and the agency performs tests on oil and gas production equipment.
Much of the air pollution from drill sites comes from flaring, the practice of intentionally burning off excess fumes from an oil well.
The state requires that flaring equipment destroy at least 98 percent of air pollution emissions.
But these regulations do not “eliminate 100 percent of air emissions from (oil and gas) facilities,” said Steve Dietrich with DEQ’s air quality division. “That’s physically impossible.”