Texas-company gains drilling rights in area of 1969 explosion in Garfield County
A Texas-based exploration company has rights to drill for natural gas near Project Rulison, the site of an underground nuclear test explosion three decades ago.
Though the Sept. 10, 1969 explosion was meant to free up natural gas reserves in the tightly locked sandstone formation, the safety of the reserves more than 8,000 feet underground has been called into question through the years.
It’s been the subject of at least half a dozen studies, said Brian Macke, deputy director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency that regulates gas drilling in the state.
It also led to a $1.3 million cleanup on behalf of the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management after the soil and surface water were found to be contaminated in the mid-1990s.
Now comes Presco Inc., located on the outskirts of Houston in a community called The Woodlands. It’s the latest company that plans to drill in western Garfield County, which now leads the state in drilling activity.
Next week, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is poised to grant Presco Inc. permission to increase its drilling density – from one well per 640 acres to one well every 40 acres in the Project Rulison area on Battlement Creek.
On Tuesday, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will meet in Glenwood Springs and is slated to give final approval to Presco’s request. It will be an item on the consent agenda, which means there will be no discussion.
Those who could have opposed it had their opportunity to speak at the commission’s administrative hearing in Denver in mid-December.
“Generally we don’t get any opposition,” said Tricia Beaver, hearings manager for the commission. “And if we do, it’s usually not from residents, it’s from people who own the mineral rights underground.”
40 acres off-limits
In all, 96 wells could be drilled on a total of 3,840 acres in the Battlement Creek area, Beaver said. And one of the six 640-acre sections that Presco has drilling rights to is located near Project Rulison – just west of Doghead Mountain and 14 miles south of Rifle.
At present, 40 acres around the Rulison Project are off limits to drilling, and if any company drills within three miles of the site, it first has to notify the Department of Energy, Macke said. The drilling companies, he said, also have to test the gas for contaminants.
Kim Bennetts, vice president of exploration for Presco, said the company has no plans in the immediate future to drill near the site or, for that matter, to start putting up a well on every 40 acres.
“We’re just a small company,” he said. “We’re not going to start bringing in rigs and start setting them up all over the place.”
So far Presco has only drilled one well in Garfield County, about two miles west of the Project Rulison site, he said.
In December, the oil and gas commission preliminarily approved Presco’s request to drill on 40 acre parcels after the company showed it needed more wells to successfully extract the natural gas from the Williams Fork formation, Beaver said. The formation lies 6,000 to 8,000 feet underground, and spans from south of Silt to north of Parachute.
Company still exploring
Drilling more wells on fewer acres is a trend that is becoming more common in Garfield County as the demand for natural gas across the country has gone up, which, in turn, has driven the prices up.
Bob Utesch, a board member of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said there’s nothing residents can do once a company gets permission to drill.
“The reality of the situation is that once they get leases in an area, all they need to do is ask for a reduction in spacing,” he said. “It’s a technique that’s been used before and it will be used again, and again and again.”
Still, Beaver said, many gas exploration companies these days are drilling with environmentally sound techniques, including directional drilling.
“Just because they can drill one well per every 40 acres,” she said, “doesn’t mean they’re going to. There are other ways around it.”
Bennetts, of Presco, agreed.
“Maybe in 20 years, if things go right, we’ll drill a lot,” he said, “but right now, we’re just exploring.”