Lessons from Rulison will guide new project

Federal and state agencies plan to apply some of the lessons learned from Project Rulison as they try to decide how close to another underground nuclear test site that natural gas development should be allowed to occur.

Attorney Luke Danielson, who has represented landowners near the Project Rulison site, hopes one lesson the agencies take to heart at Project Rio Blanco is the importance of getting on top of the matter before energy companies descend on the area to drill.

“I think at Project Rulison, both the state and federal agencies were slow to realize what was going on and try to figure out an appropriate response,” he said.

Federal and state officials have begun meeting in anticipation of natural gas companies wanting to drill closer to Project Rio Blanco. They expect to use computer modeling developed for Project Rulison as they try to determine how near the site drilling can safely take place.

Project Rulison and Project Rio Blanco both 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 in the Rulison/Battlement Mesa area. Project Rio Blanco followed in 1973, in the Fawn Creek area off Rio Blanco County Road 5, west of state Highway 13 and just north of the Garfield County line.

One key difference between the two sites is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management owns most of the land surrounding the Project Rio Blanco site. There aren’t homes on private land in the area, as is the case with Project
Rulison, where some nearby residents fear possible radioactive contamination of water as a result of natural gas drilling.

Jack Craig, project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management, said the chief concern at Project Rio Blanco is making sure radioactive gas isn’t produced.

Project Rio Blanco consisted of three nuclear blasts, not just one as was the case for Project Rulison. Three 33-kiloton nuclear devices were detonated in a single well at depths of 5,838, 6,230 and 6,689 feet.

The Department of Energy prohibits drilling without U.S. government permission in a 1,200-foot-diameter circle around the blast site between 1,500 and 7,500 feet underground, and in a 200-foot-diameter circle for shallower drilling. However, the site lacks certain controls that are in place for Project Rulison.

There, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requires a hearing on applications to drill within a half-mile of the site, but no such applications have been filed yet. Between a half-mile and three miles away — where significant drilling activity has occurred — the COGCC notifies the Energy Department of drilling permit applications and gives it the opportunity to comment.

The Energy Department has been meeting with the BLM, COGCC and state health officials about Project Rio Blanco. Craig said little drilling has occurred in the area, but it’s his understanding that all of the oil and gas rights have been leased around the blast site, and he expects drilling to flourish in the region.

Duane Spencer, the BLM’s acting deputy state director for energy, land and minerals, said there are some old nonproducing wells near the blast site. Some newer producing wells appear to be within a mile of the site, but the BLM is comfortable with drilling activity at that distance based on what’s been learned with Project Rulison, Spencer said.

The federal government withdrew 360 acres from the public domain in advance of the blast. But Spencer said a pre-existing lease for the area was exempted from the withdrawal.

“It’s not clear in our files exactly what happens to that lease if (lease holders) wanted to do something,” Spencer said.

Craig said officials have been monitoring surface and well water in the vicinity of the Project Rio Blanco site and have found no signs of radioactive substances, other than naturally occurring tritium.


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