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Gas drilling on Roan Plateau could exceed current projections

Dennis Webb

The president of a local energy watchdog group says the gas well numbers being offered in a draft plan for the Roan Plateau are meaningless because the state can increase drilling density later.”Those numbers are not fixed, those numbers can change easily,” said Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.Greg Goodenow, planning and environmental coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management’s Glenwood Springs Field Office, confirmed that well numbers laid out last week in five draft management alternatives for the plateau should not be viewed as the maximum amount of drilling that would be allowed by each alternative.”It is true that the number of wells could be increased,” he said.The BLM, not the state, would decide eventual drilling densities on federal lands covered under the plan, he said.The BLM considers the well numbers to be the agency’s best estimates for what would occur under each alternative over the 20-year life of the plan.”This is not a plan of development. It’s our attempt to project what we think may happen over the next 20 years,” he said.Misleading well estimates will skew the public discussion the BLM seeks, Cox said.”This is a big trick, actually,” he said. “It’s just a big trick.”Much of the debate over the plan has focused on the plateau top, which environmentalists and municipalities in Garfield County want protected from drilling. Under Alternative 3, about 51 wells would be drilled from 39 well pads on the plateau top, but not until 80 percent of the anticipated drilling on public and private land in the rest of the plateau planning area takes place. The BLM says that threshold of about 2,400 wells would be reached in 16 years, but could take only 10 years, or more than 20.Another alternative could result in just 10 wells above the plateau rim; the least restrictive could result in 234 wells there. The BLM’s estimates for drilling levels below the rim range from 818 to 1,348 wells, depending on the alternative. Alternative 3 could result in 1,273 wells drilled from 363 pads below the plateau rim on public land, the BLM estimates. The drilling estimates differ based on how much of the plateau would be open to drilling, and what special restrictions would apply to certain drilling areas, under each alternative.Once the BLM leases lands for drilling, purview over drilling density passes to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Cox said.Goodenow said the BLM typically adopts COGCC recommendations on downhole well spacing in cases of private lands with federal underground mineral rights. When the land is federal as well, the COGCC has no official say, Goodenow said. Downhole spacing refers to the number of wells drilled underground. It can be greater than surface spacing of well pads, because more than one well can be drilled from a well pad using directional drilling.Over the past decade, the COGCC has agreed to allow denser downhole spacing in some drilling operations in Garfield County, generally through the use of directional drilling. Energy producers are finding that well densities as great as one per 10 acres are required to get most of the gas out of the highly productive Mesa Verde/Williams Fork geological formations.Goodenow said the BLM expects energy companies to produce gas in an efficient manner, which denser drilling could accomplish.”We don’t want to waste a public resource,” he said, and the agency must work to protect the environment at the same time.The BLM says that on the surface, there would be an average of one well pad per every 160 acres across the planning area. But Glenwood Springs field manager Jamie Connell said that’s just a guideline. In some places, it might be better environmentally to locate pads closer together, and in other places the agency might require densities of less than 160 acres.Denser underground spacing might be warranted within the 20-year framework of the BLM plan. If that would result in greater surface impacts than had been projected by the plan, the agency would be required to conduct more environmental analysis before the drilling could occur, Goodenow said.”We’ve tried to be as accurate as we can given the information that we have,” Goodenow said. “We think we’ve made what is a reasonable projection. What the eventualities may be only time will tell.”If Cox or others disagree with the BLM’s projections, they should express their concerns during the public comment period taking place this winter on the draft plan, Goodenow said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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