State readies drilling plan for Rio Blanco nuclear site

State regulators are preparing a plan for dealing with natural gas development near a Rio Blanco County underground nuclear blast site.

Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the state has received a number of drilling permit applications in the past three or four months near what’s known as Project Rio Blanco.

“We will be holding those applications until we have that plan in place,” Neslin told commission members Monday.

In a 6–2 vote, the commission proceeded with approving 10-acre well spacing for Williams Production RMT for property that is partially within three miles of the blast site. However, the action doesn’t grant Williams approval to drill the wells.

At a similar site, Project Rulison in Garfield County, the state requires companies to conduct sampling for drilling within three miles to determine if any radioactivity associated with the blast is encountered. The companies also must have an emergency response plan in place.

Neslin said the state is developing similar requirements for Project Rio Blanco.

The two projects were federal experiments that involved setting off underground nuclear explosions to try to stimulate the flow of natural gas. Project Rulison took place in 1969. Project Rio Blanco followed in 1973, in the Fawn Creek area off Rio Blanco County Road 5.

The oil and gas commission would require a hearing for any drilling application within a half-mile of the Project Rulison site. However, the state previously has approved well spacing within the half-mile.

Commission member Tresi Houpt expressed discomfort Monday with granting even well spacing approval near Project Rio Blanco while discussions are ongoing on how to proceed with drilling in the area. Commissioner Michael Dowling worried that people might perceive it as drilling being approved, even though that’s not the case.

Commissioner Mark Cutright said he didn’t mind approving the well spacing as long as no drilling permits are issued until a review of proposed drilling stipulations can occur.

“The Rulison site had considerable discussion. … I think we need to pay attention to the Rio Blanco site as well,” he said.

Commission member James Martin, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said Project Rio Blanco is “dramatically different” from Project Rulison in that it is surrounded by federal land.

“It’s not as if there are people living there who would be exposed to a (radioactive) release if one were to occur,” he said.


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