This article, written by Special Publications Editor Adam Wilson, contains highlights of paper SPE 181680, “A Continued Assessment of the Risk of Migration of Hydrocarbons or Fracturing Fluids Into Freshwater Aquifers in the Piceance, Raton, and San Juan Basins of Colorado,” by C.H. Stone, SPE, A.W. Eustes, SPE, and W.W. Fleckenstein, SPE, Colorado School of Mines, prepared for the 2016 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Dubai, 26–28 September. The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Wellbore-construction methods, especially casing-and-cementing practices for the protection of freshwater aquifers, have been reviewed in the Piceance, Raton, and San Juan Basins in Colorado. The assessment confirms that natural-gas migration occurs infrequently but can happen from poorly constructed wellbores. Analysis confirmed no occurrence of hydraulic-fracturing-fluid contamination. The significance of these results is to help quantify the risks associated with natural-gas development as related to the contamination of surface aquifers.


The prevention of contamination of freshwater aquifers has been a prime concern in drilling operations since the inception of drilling. Surface casing has long been the primary barrier to prevent contamination of freshwater aquifers through wellbores. The probability of leakage into aquifers from wellbores during shale development has a wide range of estimates, complicated by the presence of hydrocarbons at shallow depths in many parts of the world. An earlier paper reviewed the process and outcomes of a study for the Wattenberg Field in the Denver-Julesberg Basin. This study continues the examination of the contamination of aquifers in the subsurface during the completion and the production phases of the well and quantifies the risk of contamination of aquifers through failure of the wellbore for three other major basins in Colorado, the Piceance, Raton, and San Juan Basins. This synopsis focuses on the assessment of the Piceance Basin.

Barrier Definition. Common vertical, deviated, and horizontal subsurface wellbore-barrier designs were grouped and ranked on the basis of the risk of multiple barrier failures (Fig. 1). For the sake of clarity, pressure monitoring of the casing annulus [surface annulus pressure (SAP)] was not assumed to be an additional barrier during the production phase even though it is frequent and often required by state regulations.

Well-barrier designs can vary from field to field depending on geology, trajectory, depths, anticipated pressures, expected hydraulic-treatment rates, and estimated production rates. Whether a well is horizontal, vertical, or deviated has no significance with respect to the ultimate protection of freshwater aquifers because the wells are designed to protect the shallow vertical section of each oil and gas well. Multiple barriers must be in place near the depth of the freshwater aquifer to prevent breaching of a single barrier potentially leading to contamination.

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