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More Permits Approved Near Controversial Project Rulison

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has conditionally approved 11 more applications for permits to drill (APD) natural gas wells near the controversial Project Rulison nuclear blast site.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 1969 detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear weapon more than 8,000 feet below the Rulison blast site in an experiment to free up commercially marketable natural gas. Last year the DOE determined that Project Rulison, which is about eight miles from the gas-rich area of Rifle, CO, was "relatively safe," which allowed state officials to begin considering whether to allow more drilling near the blast site (see NGI, Sept. 24). The federal agency set limits on what would be acceptable, prohibiting operators to drill deeper than 6,000 feet in a 40-acre area around the blast site. The COGCC also requires a hearing for any gas wells proposed to be drilled within a half-mile.

The COGCC, which had received APDs from several producers, in October launched its extensive review pf the scientific data (see NGI, Oct. 8, 2007). And with some caveats, the commission has determined that more gas drilling will be acceptable. Since December the commission has approved 19 APDs for wells that are "located between one-half mile and three miles from the Rulison test site," the COGCC stated. Another 26 APDs have been submitted since late January. The 11 new APDs approved are for wells that will be drilled from a pad that is located more than a mile from the blast site.

Those opposed to drilling closer than three miles from the blast site have argued that the use of fracturing technology to stimulate gas production will increase the risk that radioactive contaminants from Project Rulison may reach the surface. Gunnison, CO-based attorney Luke Danielson, representing several area residents, in February filed an objection with the COGCC to prevent more permits to be issued within three miles of the blast site.

Dave Neslin, acting director of the COGCC, told Danielson in a letter that the commission considered the residents' objections only as a written complaint. The COGCC may only withhold approval of an APD if there is "reasonable cause to believe the proposed well is in material violation" of the commission's regulations, orders or statutes "or otherwise presents an imminent threat to public safety and welfare, in the environment," Neslin wrote.

"After carefully considering your objection together with other available information, I conclude that you have not met this burden with respect to these APDs and that I therefore cannot withhold approval of the APDs," Neslin said.

Noble Energy Inc., Williams Production RMT and EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), which hold most of the oil and natural gas rights within three miles of the blast site, and third-party consultant URS Corp. developed a "comprehensive monitoring, sampling, analysis and emergency response plan for drilling activities within a three-mile radius area around the test site, the COGCC noted. A draft of the plan was reviewed by the COGCC technical staff and consultants, as well as federal, state and county state environmental and health officials, and it was revised and evaluated in January by the commission.

"This plan [Project No. 1991] will be modified as necessary as additional data are collected," and activities in the area will be available on the COGCC website under "Project No. 1991," the commission noted. In addition, "the DOE is developing a plan for radionuclide monitoring in the vicinity of the Rulison site and is actively gathering data to update the numerical fate and transport model originally presented at the [COGCC's] October 2007 informational session."

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