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Energy exploration returns to rugged terrain

Scott Condon

A company that is one of the biggest players in the natural gas production boom in Garfield County has set its sights on Pitkin County.EnCana Oil and Gas has applied with the U.S. Forest Service to drill one exploratory well in the isolated northwest corner of Pitkin County. Denver-based EnCana plans to seek natural gas in the Wolf Creek storage field, about 12 miles southwest of Carbondale.The Wolf Creek area had a producing natural gas field from 1960 to 1972. Since then its infrastructure has been used to store natural gas used in the towns of the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Walter Lowry, EnCana’s director of community and industry relations.Wolf Creek produced about 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas during its 12 years of production, qualifying it as a small field, Lowry said.The previous drilling targeted the Cozzette sandstone formation. EnCana will now target the Williams Fork formation, which isn’t as deep underground, Lowry said. The company’s application for the exploratory well indicates it will search about 4,000 feet underground.Taking a second lookThe gas in the Williams Fork formation was never tapped by the drilling in the 1960s and ’70s. EnCana holds a lease that allows it to explore at that level.Lowry said he couldn’t comment on what EnCana believes it could find as far as reserves in the Wolf Creek area. Exploratory wells have about a 10 percent chance of finding gas reserves that are economically feasible to produce, he said.EnCana has been hugely successful in tapping into reserves in the Mamm Creek field, which is part of the gas-rich Piceance Basin area centered around Rifle. EnCana has 775 active wells, mostly in Garfield County.Melanie Holm, program manager for leaseable minerals in the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Lakewood, said the Wolf Creek area is at or near the eastern fringe of the Piceance Basin.Unlike areas south of Rifle where so much gas production is taking place, the terrain in Wolf Creek is mountainous. That makes it more difficult for a company to determine where to explore for gas, and it makes it more difficult to produce, Holm said.A company probably has already done a large amount of research on the geology of an area like Wolf Creek before it even thinks about drilling an exploratory well, she said. EnCana applied to the Forest Service’s Sopris Ranger District for a drilling permit this spring. The agency will accept comments from concerned parties during what’s known as a public scoping process, according to Bill Westbrook, district ranger in the Sopris and Aspen districts. The agency will also offer public field trips on dates yet to be announced, he said.EnCana’s application proposed using existing roads and an existing drilling pad for the one exploratory well to be drilled this year, according to Larry Sandoval, forest oil and gas administrator for the Forest Service.The company has indicated it would like to drill between one and four additional wells in 2005 to verify results of this year’s test, Sandoval said.Conservation groups concernedA leading conservation group in the valley fears the exploration in the Wolf Creek area could be the first step in a flurry of gas production on public lands in Pitkin County.”It’s really the camel’s nose under the tent flap,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop. “It’s not the exploration that’s a concern. It’s what’s following.”Use of existing roads and an existing drilling pad for one exploratory well may sound benign, but it could signal large-scale production in relatively unscathed lands in the backcountry, Shoemaker warned.”It can change the character of the entire landscape if the exploratory wells prove productive,” he said.Although drilling previously occurred in the Wolf Creek area, the roads that were cut and the handful of drilling pads that were cleared are still isolated in rugged backcountry terrain and surrounded by thick forest, Shoemaker said. Further development would affect wildlife habitat.Conservation groups are also concerned that redevelopment of the Wolf Creek storage field could signal greater activity in Pitkin County – where no producing well currently exists.


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