Energy department drops its opposition to wells near Rulison

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The U.S. Department of Energy is dropping its opposition to oil and gas development outside 40 acres surrounding the Project Rulison nuclear blast site.

Its decision to no longer oppose the notion of development elsewhere within a half-mile of the 1969 underground blast comes as Garfield County commissioners step up efforts to get the energy department to drill test wells before deciding what area should be off-limits.

Commissioners unanimously agreed Monday to send a letter asking Colorado’s congressional delegation and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to compel the department to do the testing.

Project Rulison was a 1969 federal project in which a nuclear device was exploded underground south of Rulison in an experimental effort to free up natural gas. Gas development has been increasing in the area around the site, but no companies have sought to drill within a half-mile, which could occur only if the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved it.

Companies drilling within three miles of the site monitor for radioactivity in ground and surface water and produced natural gas, and have found none. But that program doesn’t generate data on the threat posed by radioactive substances such as tritium within a half-mile of the site, according to Garfield’s oil and gas liaison, Judy Jordan.

In 2007, the energy department said its computer modeling showed there was a 95 percent probability of no contamination by tritium at a hypothetical gas well.

Jack Craig, project manager for the department’s Office of Legacy Management, said further technical analysis leaves the agency comfortable with any drilling outside the exclusion zone as long as companies don’t do well fracturing.

The energy department has turned down the county’s request that it do its own drilling to determine the extent of contamination.

“We can’t do it. It’s too expensive; it doesn’t make a lot of sense technically to us,” he said.
County Commissioner John Martin said the department is inappropriately using energy companies as guinea pigs to determine how close to the blast site it’s safe to drill.

“We think that’s wrong,” he said.

Commissioners also want the department to compensate mineral-rights owners deprived of their property rights based on what area eventually is excluded from drilling.

The federal government owns the minerals in the existing 40-acre exclusion zone, Craig said.

County commissioners on Monday also agreed to request that the oil and gas commission ask energy firms to extend the commitment not to seek drilling permits in 2008 within a half-mile of the blast site.


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