Whitewater drilling plan lights a fire

Job seekers interested, but some worry about mesa water

When an energy company proposed drilling nearly 500 wells across some 90,000 acres along the western base of Grand Mesa, its switchboard began lighting up.

“It’s unbelievable the volume of phone calls we’ve received from people looking for work and people in the industry and whatnot,” said David Cook, manager of Fram Operating LLC, based in Colorado Springs.

Fram’s proposal, involving the largest Bureau of Land Management oil and gas production unit in Colorado, has drawn attention from other quarters as well. The Western Colorado Congress, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Western Slope Environmental Resource Council and other groups filed joint comments with the BLM urging it to evaluate possible watershed and other impacts from the drilling. The city of Grand Junction also weighed in on issues including the need to ensure protection of its municipal watershed.

Now it falls to the BLM to take public comments into consideration as it begins an environmental review of Fram’s proposal.

Cook says Fram will take concerns into account and address them as warranted, including municipal drinking supply considerations.

“We definitely will do absolutely everything to protect the watershed,” Cook said.

Fram’s proposal covers acreage east of Whitewater, and it reaches from the Palisade area much of the way to Delta. Drilling in the area dates back to at least the 1970s. Fram says that while previous drilling tapped natural gas and some oil, the small volumes and lack of pipelines didn’t warrant a development program.

Fram believes the economics may have changed with advances in drilling technology, different market conditions and the construction in the 1990s of the Trans-Colorado gas pipeline through its acreage.

“A gas field without a pipeline isn’t worth anything,” Cook said.

The ability to drill as many as 10 wells down and then horizontally from a common pad will reduce surface impacts, Cook said, and the horizontal drilling will tap much more of a gas reservoir from a single well.

Cook said all 90,000 acres should be able to be developed with the wells being proposed. That’s far less of a well density than the one well per 10 acres often being drilled in different geological formations such as areas of western Garfield County.

Fram has been drilling and completing initial exploratory wells on private lands in hopes of proving the economic potential of its holdings.

Fram is a subsidiary of a Norwegian entity, Fram Exploration AS. The Whitewater leases were acquired from Aspen Operating LLC.

BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis said the agency heard from about 30 parties after putting out a call for comment on Fram’s proposal. Maybe 12 to 14 opposed it because of concerns about things such as water and air quality and visual impacts, she said. Seven or eight supported the proposal because of its potential for creating jobs and contributing to domestic energy production. Others, such as some environmental groups and local governments, simply raised issues they want the BLM to consider, Curtis said.

Watershed-wise, Kannah Creek is the chief area of concern. Environmental groups say one proposed well pad in particular shouldn’t be allowed, because it is within Grand Junction’s watershed protection area in the creek drainage and upstream from a municipal reservoir.

Rick Brinkman, the city’s water services manager, said a well pad is proposed upgrade of the city’s Juniata Reservoir, the city’s primary water supply reservoir. Hydrologically, it wouldn’t be in the reservoir’s watershed, he said, but the city is concerned about its location and wants to know what measures would be implemented to make sure nothing from the pad ends up in the reservoir.

He said another pad would be within the city watershed, by the city’s Somerville Ranch. It would fall under the city’s watershed protection rules, which were modeled after a 2007 agreement between Genesis Gas & Oil LLC and entities including Grand Junction and Palisade to protect the communities’ watersheds from potential drilling on Grand Mesa.

Some of Grand Junction’s rules include requirements to use closed systems instead of pits to handle drilling fluids, and to disclose all chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing of wells, a process used to stimulate oil and gas production.

Cook said preliminary results show Fram’s wells will produce gas without requiring fracturing, although the company isn’t ruling out the need for it.

“Certainly we’re aware and not intending to use anything that may be harmful to the watershed,” he said.

Environmental groups want full disclosure of all chemicals Fram would use in all of its drilling and fracturing.

Grand Junction has raised other issues for the BLM to consider, such as possible negative consequences from increased public access to public and private lands because of new road construction. The city suggests using locked gates to prevent unauthorized use of private lands, which it considers to be particularly a concern in its watershed.

It also is urging the BLM to take a phased approach to well development by Fram, so the BLM can evaluate the company’s level of compliance with approved terms and conditions.

In their joint letter, environmental groups commented on everything from greenhouse gas considerations to multiple “unsatisfactory” marks they say Fram has received from state regulators inspecting its existing facilities. The Western Colorado Congress said it is worried about the possible threat of drilling and fracturing near the Cheney Disposal Cell, an underground storage site for uranium tailings.

Cook said it isn’t planning any well pads near that site.

“We’re staying away from that. Not interested, thanks,” he said.


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