The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has dropped its opposition to natural gas development within a half-mile of the Project Rulison nuclear blast site in Colorado. However, Garfield County, CO, commissioners Monday voted to ask DOE to drill some test wells before any new energy development is allowed closer to the site.

DOE in 1969 detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear weapon more than 8,000 feet below the Rulison blast site near Rifle, CO, in an experiment to free up commercially marketable natural gas. Not enough marketable gas was produced, and the blast site, which is in an area rich in gas resources, will remain radioactive for years. The federal government owns the minerals in the existing 40-acre exclusion zone, but operators for several years have requested — and obtained — leaseholds outside the blast zone.

DOE had long blocked drilling within a half-mile of the blast site, but in 2007 it determined that the area beyond 40 acres of the zone was “relatively safe” (see Daily GPI, Sept. 21, 2007). Computer modeling by DOE determined there was a 95% probability of no tritium contamination at a hypothetical gas well within a half-mile of the site. Now that additional technical analysis has been conducted, DOE said it is “comfortable” with drilling conducted outside the exclusion zone as long as hydraulic fracturing is not allowed.

Garfield County commissioners unanimously agreed Monday to send a letter asking Colorado’s congressional delegation and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to compel DOE to conduct some drilling tests before operators may begin work. The commission also wants DOE to compensate property owners who may be denied access to their property.

In addition, commissioners voted to send a letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to request continued caution before issuing drilling permits near the blast site. The COGCC requires a hearing for any gas wells proposed to be drilled near the blast site, but since December 2007 it has conditionally approved numerous applications for permits to drill gas wells in the surrounding area (see Daily GPI, April 11, 2008).

Operators drilling within three miles of the Rulison site are required by the state to monitor for radioactivity in ground and surface water, and they have to monitor produced natural gas for contamination. To date, the COGCC said no radioactivity has been found in water or gas samples within three miles of the site. The monitoring program does not generate data on possible contamination within a half-mile of the site from certain radioactive substances, according to Garfield County officials.

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