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Rulison drilling delayed

Dennis Webb

A Texas company has postponed plans to drill near the site of the Project Rulison underground nuclear explosion, but only until next year.Presco Inc. had hoped to drill some wells this fall, but operational issues have delayed the work until April 2005 at the earliest, said Kim R.W. Bennetts, vice president of exploration and production for the company.Lack of access to drilling rigs and transportation pipelines are two of the factors behind the delay, Bennetts said.However, Presco plans to proceed with drilling in the vicinity of the Rulison-area property where the federal government set off a proton bomb underground in 1969. The purpose was to see whether the explosion could free natural gas from sandstone formations about 8,500 feet underground.The test was deemed a failure due to the radioactivity in the gas, but the federal and state governments say nearby gas drilling shouldn’t present a danger.However, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in February ruled that Presco could not drill within a half-mile radius of the test site bore hole without approval from the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s an area covering about 500 acres.Presco had previously been required not to drill on 40 acres around “ground zero” of the Project Rulison site.Area residents have voiced concern that the drilling could lead to radioactive contamination of well water and other public safety threats.Presco has been meeting with residents to explain its plans and also is voluntarily sampling water wells, surface springs and seeps for radioactivity, naturally occurring methane and pollution, Bennetts said. It is doing some of that testing this week, and a total of more than a dozen sites will be tested.”We’re just doing it just because we want to make sure people are satisfied,” Bennetts said.”We’re going to try to bend over backwards to do what we can to assure everyone’s safety, including our own,” he said.Presco’s delays result in part from what Bennetts described as a monopolization of a limited number of drill rigs by the big natural gas producers in Garfield County. Because companies such as EnCana Oil & Gas do so much drilling in the county, they are preferred customers and can sign long-term contracts with drillers and other production-related contractors.”It’s more difficult for us to get a drilling rig,” Bennetts said. “We may have to bring in a rig from somewhere else.”Presco’s plans also have been delayed by EnCana’s purchase of Tom Brown Inc., another local energy producer. Presco had been partnering with Tom Brown on its project in Garfield County, but EnCana has other priority areas in the county for drilling, Bennetts said.Bennetts said the delays are disappointing in some respects, but also provide Presco with an opportunity to work to avoid problems such as those EnCana has experienced with the seeping of natural gas into West Divide Creek south of Silt. The state fined EnCana a record $371,200 this summer for that seep.Bennetts said the main concerns Presco is hearing from residents have to do with the standard problems arising from gas development, such as water pollution and truck traffic. But he said a small number remain worried about a radioactive catastrophe resulting from Presco’s drilling.Bennetts said he respects those concerns, even if he doesn’t share them, and Presco is trying to do what it can to assure the public that it can proceed with drilling safely.Wesley Kent is among those with properties in the Rulison area who continue to fear the possible results of drilling near the Project Rulison site.Kent attended the recent Northwest Colorado Oil and Gas Forum in Rifle, where a resident south of Silt, Laura Amos, told of the state issuing EnCana a notice of alleged violation early this year due to contamination of her water well by gas believed to have come from an EnCana well.”This same thing could occur where I live,” Kent said. “I can’t imagine what kind of cleanup you’d have on that.”Kent fears that radioactive gas could end up being shipped in pipelines to homes. And he wonders why drilling should be allowed so close to the nuclear test site when there are so many other places to drill in the area.Kent said he thinks Presco is doing the best it can to proceed in a safe manner. But as a smaller producer, its finances are limited, and even if it was a much bigger company he questions whether it can drill in a manner that protects the public.But Bennetts cites both Department of Energy and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission findings that drilling can safely occur near the test site.All the gas freed by the nuclear blast was produced and burned off at the surface, Bennetts said. The radioactivity at the site wasn’t high to begin with, and since has decreased to below background levels, he said.The blast formed a sealed cavity underground, according to state and federal authorities.”Even if you drilled a well into that cavity again, there’s very little radioactivity remaining to be produced,” Bennetts said.But authorities say drilling limits will prevent the cavity from being touched. COGCC director Brian Macke said the COGCC was “very careful” in its decision governing drilling in the area, and will require strict conditions such as reports from Presco showing tracking of directional drilling to make sure the cavity isn’t disturbed.Bennetts said it’s in Presco’s own interests to drill safely in the area.”We couldn’t sell radioactive gas and we wouldn’t,” he said. “I’m going to be out there. I’ve got a geologist next door to me who’s going to be out there. We wouldn’t be out there if there’s going to be a problem.”In fact, Bennetts pointed out, Presco already drilled one well about one and a half miles west of the Project Rulison site. That well isn’t producing gas yet because Presco couldn’t get it hooked up to a pipeline. Bennetts expects the company to complete work on the well this spring.Though it’s not required, Presco will have gas from the well tested for radioactivity, he said.”We’re spending money that we’re not required to spend,” he said.Gas testing will be required for wells closer to the site. Presco also plans to test the mud and cuttings from some of the wells it drills. The gas samples will be sent to an Energy Department lab in Illinois.Presco currently plans to drill between 12 and 15 wells on several thousand acres of land between a half-mile and three miles from the nuclear test site, Bennetts said. It plans to proceed with that drilling first rather than immediately seeking Department of Energy approval for wells closer to the test site, he said.Presco currently plans to drill between 12 and 15 wells on several thousand acres of land between a half-mile and three miles from the nuclear test site, Bennetts said. It plans to proceed with that drilling first rather than immediately seeking Department of Energy approval for wells closer to the test site, he said.


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