The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado has approved Noble Energy Inc.’s plan to drill 79 natural gas wells in western Colorado near Project Rulison, the site of an underground nuclear blast 40 years ago.

Noble would drill the wells over the next three to five years, and gas produced would be tested for radioactivity, according to the proposal. The project area is on 1,820 acres, which includes 736 acres in the White River National Forest. Most of the drilling would take place on private land, of which 724 acres overlie federal gas and oil leases. Thirty-nine of the wells would tap federally leased minerals; the remaining 40 involve private leases.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency to the Department of Energy (DOE), in 1969 detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device more than 8,000 feet below the ground in the Williams Fork Formation at the Project Rulison site in an attempt to release commercially marketable quantities of natural gas.

Four production tests conducted on a reentry well between October 1970 and August 1971 produced a total of 455 MMcf, which was approximately 10 times that of a conventionally stimulated well in the same production zone, the DOE reported. However, the experiment was discontinued when the gas freed by the explosion proved to be radioactive.

Following extensive analysis of the site by state and federal officials, the DOE said in June that drilling for gas could be safely conducted within one-half mile from the Rulison site (see Daily GPI, June 29). The DOE had issued the draft report as guidance for operators and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which has final authority over applications for permits to drill oil and gas wells in Colorado. The COGCC has imposed administrative controls on drillers in the vicinity of the Rulison site and notifies DOE of any drilling permit activity within three miles of the nuclear site.

The Noble wells are to be drilled “no closer” than half a mile and up to about three miles from the Project Rulison site, which is south of Rulison and east of Parachute, CO. DOE would have the authority to sample any wells for radioactivity, according to BLM. The project also requires approval by U.S. Forest Service officials because the project’s pipelines and an access road would cross into a national forest.

BLM said it would ask DOE to include one of Noble’s proposed wells in the long-term monitoring program at Rulison. Also, to comply with state policy for wells drilled within three miles of Project Rulison, drilling cuttings and fluids are to be tested for tritium, a radioactive material. Assuming they test negative, Noble would be allowed to place cuttings in lined pits or trenches and bury them on site. Noble plans to drill directionally from five well pads, all on private land.

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