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Colorado Operators Shutter 50 Gas Wells Facing Fire Threats

As the Pine Ridge fire in Colorado expanded Friday, up to 50 natural gas wells were shut in by operators along the Western Slope in the Piceance Basin. In one case, wells were shuttered before operators were asked to do so by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA).

With flames within five miles of the well pads, operations were shut by Encana Corp.'s USA division, Black Hills Exploration & Production and a joint venture of the two, Maralex Resources Inc. "The operators knew what to do and did it even before BLM asked them to shut down," said COGA's David Ludlam, who directs the Western Slope affiliates branch, which includes Piceance operators.

Although the fire situation remained fluid, Ludlam told NGI that there was the prospect for more wells being shut in over the weekend. "BLM has speculated that the fire could jump Interstate 70 and spread in another direction. Operators are on guard, monitoring the fire and working closely with BLM, and all of the operations of the three companies are on standby and shutting in the wells as needed."

COGA officials emphasized that oil and gas operators are required to have detailed emergency response plans in place, including plans to respond to wildfires, and each well pad is designed to avoid major damage from fires with several cleared acres surrounding the pads. Ludlam said exploration and production companies apply a combination of technology, training and teamwork in anticipating wildfire threats.

"All of these wells are controlled electronically [solar-powered remote telemetry], and the computers can be shut off remotely at any time," Ludlam told NGI. "That applies not only to the wells, but to the gathering system from the midstream pipelines that take the gas and move it from one place to another."

Ludlam said every well in the Piceance is monitored continuously through a combination of computer systems and the telemetry. "That's one backstop, and the second is training," he said. "Often times to get drilling permits, operators have to have in place emergency response plans that include wildfire mitigation and general response plans."

Finally, the operators have plans for working with local fire-fighting districts, BLM officials and other stakeholders, which are given access to the operators' maps and facility schematics, to know what sort of oil/gas infrastructure is in place.

Chevron Corp. officials said none of their wells in the basin were threatened, but they were closely monitoring the situation, which included dense smoke, high winds and limited access. The company had voluntarily shuttered its operations and released workers from the area, according to reports.

A BLM spokesperson reportedly said oil and gas facilities in the path of wildfires "complicates" the situation for fire-fighters. However, Ludlam downplayed added threat, saying there was no cause for alarm because the operators were on top of the situation.

Encana is the largest leaseholder in the Piceance with about 829,000 net acres, according to company reports. ExxonMobil Corp. (300,000 acres), WPX Energy (211,000 acres) and Occidental Petroleum Corp. (140,000 acres) also have major leaseholds in the play.

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