Senior environmental engineer for Fidelity Exploration and Production Dina Brown, right, shows a ramp that the company constructed to allow bicycle access over the Dead Horse Lateral natural gas pipeline, on an April 23 tour sponsored by the company. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Fidelity Exploration, the company developing the Big Flat oil field in Grand County, conducted an infrastructure tour for board members and employees of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (UDOGM) on Tuesday, April 23.

Open to the public, the tour traveled the route of the recently completed Dead Horse Lateral natural gas gathering pipeline, and included site visits to the corresponding Blue Hills processing plant, Dubinky booster station and a producing well site.

Fidelity Environmental, Health and Safety Manager Mike Keller said his company understands the environmental sensitivity of the region, and it’s glad for the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to protecting the area.

“It’s a pretty impressive show,” he said.

Fidelity built the pipeline and associated infrastructure to collect natural gas produced from oil wells on Big Flat that the company has previously been “flaring,” or burning off.

Fidelity has been flaring about 2 million cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere each day.

Keller said that the company is now capturing 90 percent of the produced natural gas, but that flaring will continue on wells that don’t exceed state standards or that will eventually be shut in due to their lack of oil production.

Fidelity currently has 15 of 23 wells tied into the pipeline, which completes the first phase of the gathering system, according to company spokesman Tim Rasmussen.

“The next phase of gathering line connections will occur as more wells are permitted and ultimately drilled,” Rasmussen said. “This is, more than likely, a few years away.”

The Dead Horse Lateral Pipeline has been a contentious component to an already controversial oil field due to its proximity to Canyonlands National Park and surrounding high-use recreation areas.

The pipeline runs above ground for approximately 18 miles of its 24-mile length, and collects produced natural gas from wells via 25 miles worth of buried gathering lines. The gas is conveyed to a processing plant near the Blue Hills road, where fluid is extracted before the product is fed into the Williams transmission line to be delivered to market.

Produced water extracted from the natural gas is injected into a well along Spring Canyon Road.

Environmentalists and recreational users have objected to the pipeline for its visual impact, while other groups have raised concerns about safety and the lack of standards governing low-pressure gathering lines.

Bill Rau, who serves as vice chair of the Sierra Club’s Glen Canyon Group, said that the tour went to the “best places Fidelity had to show.”

Rau said that due to the area’s high recreational use, the pipeline should be held to higher standards, similar to those governing transmission lines. He said the tour failed to address concerns he had, including pipe movement due to heat extremes, and areas where the pipeline was unsupported over wash crossings.

“There was no discussion of the numerous noncompliance issues identified by local citizens during construction,” he said.

Fidelity said that the pipeline, though not regulated, has been built to much higher standards than is necessary for a low-pressure line, and that by running the line above ground, impact to the environment is lessened.

“To lay it underground would have made a huge scar,” Keller said. “This way, it’s temporary.”

The above-ground portion of the pipeline was welded together in sections along the adjacent Dubinky Well Road, and then boomed into place to minimize surface disturbance. For much of the pipeline’s course, native plants and biological soil crust are relatively undisturbed.

UDOGM Associate Director John Rogers told the Moab Sun News that he is impressed with what he saw, and that he requested the tour to give board members an opportunity to view the oil field and natural gas infrastructure.

“I think they’ve done a good clean job here,” Rogers said.

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney Neal Clark said he was surprised to hear that flaring would continue in spite of the pipeline.

“I thought that’s what this was all about,” he said.

Clark cited the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) initial Environmental Assessment that authorized construction of the pipeline.

“The pipeline would control 100 percent of the VOCs generated by produced natural gas,” the document said.

Additionally, the Environmental Assessment states that “after the pipeline is in operation, natural gas flares would not be needed. Dark night skies would be restored to observers traveling (state Route) 313. In addition, flares would not be visible from Arches (National Park), the Sand Flats Special Recreation Management Area or other more distant locations.”

BLM Moab Field Office Manager Beth Ransel said that the agency has regulations pertaining to flaring of natural gas from oil and gas facilities located on federally managed lands.

“The portion of the gathering lines system that has been installed within the Cane Creek Unit ensures the capture of natural gas at the highest volume natural gas producing wells,” Ransel said. “The Bureau of Land Management would have to review the economics of capture for each individual well where natural gas is still planned to be flared, if a request is made to approve unavoidable loss of the resource.”

Ransel said the Environmental Assessment assumes that the approval of the gathering line would ultimately lead to the installation and operation of the proposed facilities. However, it’s important to note that the authorization of the project does not require the developer to install them, she said.

Rogers said that both UDOGM and the BLM regulate flaring, but the state and the Utah Division of Air Quality set the cap. He said the BLM can enforce higher standards on federal lands, but that it cannot allow more gas to be flared than is allowed by the state.

According to Rogers, UDOGM regulates natural gas flaring in order to prevent the waste of a non-renewable resource. The agency allows up to 1,800 mcf (1.8 million cubic feet) per month, or 60 mcf per day, per well, to be flared without approval. After that, Rogers said, a company needs to apply to the UDOGM board for a permit to flare.

Rogers said that once a well is producing oil and associated natural gas, it can’t just be turned off without damaging the reservoir. He said his agency takes into account the need to allow for flaring in order to provide for a continuous flow of oil, but that producers need to have a plan in place for collecting the natural gas.

“We want to get the oil out of there,” he said. “It’s not all about dollars and cents, but that’s part of it.”

Rogers said he knows there are people who didn’t want to see development in the area due to its scenic and recreational values, but felt that in the interest of multiple use, adverse affects could be mitigated.

“It’s big country,” he said. “I think there is room for everyone.”

Flaring of natural gas to continue in spite of pipeline

I think they’ve done a good, clean job here.