State wavers on drilling safety buffer zone

Despite requests from federal legislators for Gov. Ritter’s help, it appears Archuleta County residents will have to wait to receive an additional safeguard that may better protect them from the negative impacts of coal bed methane drilling.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall appealed to Ritter March 2, asking the governor to support extending the existing 1.5 mile safety buffer around the Fruitland Outcrop in La Plata County to Archuleta County.

In a letter to Ritter, Udall and Salazar write, “Safety concerns have existed surrounding coal bed methane drilling on the formation known as the ‘Outcrop’ located on the edge of the San Juan Basin. Drilling along this formation has long led to problems including the contamination of wells, evacuation from homes and underground coal seam fires ... Governor Ritter, we respectfully request that you join with us to support the extension of a 1.5 mile buffer on the outcrop formation into Archuleta County.”

The outcrop, or specifically, the Fruitland Outcrop, is a geologic uplift clearly visible along U.S. 160 just west of the Piedra River. It marks the northern boundary of the San Juan Basin and the Northern San Juan Basin Coal Bed Methane Project — a 125,000-acre area governed largely by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and slated for coal bed methane extraction. The project area stretches from southeast of Durango, east into Archuleta County and south, to near the Southern Ute Reservation line.

A call to Ritter’s office regarding the safety buffer yielded a response from Theo Stein, communications director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

“We’re aware of the request from Rep. Salazar and Sen. Udall and we are reviewing it. At this point, COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) does not feel it has enough information on which to base a sound decision about requiring a regulated 1.5 mile buffer similar to that in La Plata County.”

In order to better understand the geology and hydrology of the Fruitland formation in Archuleta County, and in order to make an informed decision on establishing a buffer, Stein explained staff, in conjunction with technical experts and the Colorado Geologic Survey, are preparing a map of the formation within Archuleta County. Completion was targeted for February 2009.

In addition to mapping, Stein said six monitoring wells have been drilled at three well sites in Archuleta County. The data will be used to assess and monitor methane and water content levels. Furthermore, land managers with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management say monitor well data will help them, industry staff and the COGCC identify risks and the potential for negative drilling-related impacts along the outcrop well before they occur.

That said, the mapping and monitoring strategy ties directly into the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management environmental impact statement and record of decision (ROD) regarding drilling for coal bed methane in the project area and along the outcrop in the Northern San Juan Basin.

According to the ROD, released April 2007, under most circumstances, drilling within 1.5 miles of the outcrop will be prohibited in La Plata County, while “within Archuleta County, drilling within 1.5 miles of the outcrop will be permitted following an incremental, monitor-and-evaluate-as you go approach.”

The difference in protection and drilling strategies between the two counties, said the documents’s author, Forest Supervisor and BLM Center Manager Mark Stiles, is linked to key geologic and hydrologic differences occurring in the Fruitland formation. At its simplest, the ROD and its accompanying environmental impact statement say the outcrop is not structurally homogenous across the counties. In fact, the EIS states the outcrop undergoes noteworthy structural changes almost at the Archuleta-La Plata County line.

The differences in structure have much to do with the orientation of coal seams relative to the outcrop itself and water content of the coal beds being drilled.

For example, industry representatives and federal documents say coal cleats (small fractures in the coal formation through which the methane moves once water is removed as part of the drilling process) run perpendicular to the outcrop in La Plata County. This perpendicular orientation, coupled with drilling, some say has led to a series of verifiable problems such as: five underground coal bed fires currently burning on the west side of the San Juan Basin; methane seeps in domestic water wells; condemnation of homes due to methane seepage (five homes have been abandoned and razed, another burned to the ground); and a degradation or depletion of the water table — hence the need for the drilling safety buffer, which the COGCC imposed in La Plata County.

By contrast, the same documents say the coal cleats on the Archuleta County side of the formation run parallel to the outcrop. This orientation, along with other geologic factors, the document argues, means the methane is less likely to escape in the form of seeps and thus should not give rise to the same sorts of drilling-related problems.

In addition, Mike Clark, president of Petrox Resources Inc., one of the chief operators with wells within the proposed buffer area, said test wells drilled in the Fosset Gulch area indicate coal bed methane on the Archuleta County side of the proposed buffer area is “drier,” meaning dewatering or water depletion typical of coal bed methane drilling operations is unlikely to occur.

Thus, with parallel coal cleats, “drier” coals, and no evidence of methane seeps (as ascertained by aerial photography) opponents of the safety buffer say Archuleta County residents living near the outcrop are unlikely to experience the same impacts as those living on the La Plata County side.

“While empirical evidence is limited on the east side of the unit, we do know that wells near the outcrop in Archuleta County have shown lower levels of natural gas production and much lower water production than wells near the outcrop in La Plata County ... While the exact demarcation for these differences has not been identified, outcrop mapping and well and drilling records show that the La Plata-Archuleta County line is a close proxy to this geologic and hydrologic change near the outcrop.”

Empirical evidence, however, albeit lacking in Archuleta County, proves plentiful for supporting arguments that drilling near the outcrop in La Plata County has been risky business — hence Udall’s, Salazar’s and Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw’s request for a 1.5 mile safety buffer.

Since the release of the record of decision, and since the level of drilling-related risk remains unknown, Moomaw has sought technical advice, gathered anecdotal evidence from residents and enlisted the help of state and federal representatives in his pursuit to establish a 1.5 mile drilling buffer in Archuleta County.

But despite his efforts, Moomaw said he became frustrated with the COGCC and their “lack of concern” for the health, safety and welfare of Archuleta County residents. Moomaw displayed a stack of letters sent between him and the COGCC as evidence for his case.

On Aug. 13, 2008, Moomaw wrote David Neslin, director of the COGCC, stating the county’s concerns and vowing to protest all wells approved for production in Archuleta County within 1.5 miles of the outcrop.

“We feel we are entitled to the same consideration and protection that has been given to La Plata County, no drilling within one and a half miles of the outcrop. La Plata county has experienced numerous problems as a result of drilling in the outcrop. Some of those problems are five coal seam fires all of which despite considerable expense by the Southern Ute Tribe are still burning out of control, one house destroyed and subsequent purchase of other homes in the Pine River Ranches subdivision due to methane seeps. No one can estimate the damage to Archuleta County if there were methane seeps at the outcrop; should a coal seam fire occur where Highway 160 crosses the outcrop, Archuleta County would face economic disaster. Simply stated, the economic benefits for the small number of wells that could be drilled do not even come close to the offsetting the possible risks.”

Although some argue the risk of an underground coal fire in Archuleta County is unlikely, Josh Joswick, oil and gas coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said a drive along U.S. 160 — roughly between mile markers 116 and 117 — provides evidence that at least one underground coal fire has occurred along the outcrop in Archuleta County. The evidence, namely reddish, heat-altered rocks known as scoria, Joswick said, indicates concerns regarding a coal bed fire aren’t without merit.

On Aug. 26, 2008, in response to Moomaw’s letter to the COGCC, Clark, Petrox’s president, wrote back, citing various bits of data and studies in an attempt to alleviate Moomaw’s concerns and to assert that a drilling ban within the proposed 1.5 mile setback could not be supported.

Three days later, Moomaw received a letter from Mark Weems, an area engineer for the COGCC.

In the letter, Weems apologized for “any misunderstandings,” advocated seeking “win/win” solutions to coal bed methane production in the area, referred Moomaw to the COGCC Web site, and suggested Moomaw and the county follow proper protocol (complete with photocopied instructions on how to do so from the COGCC rule book) should the county choose to file outcrop drilling protests in the future.

Now, five months after the banter between Moomaw and COGCC staff, and the COGCC’s reluctance — based on Stein’s comments — to impose a safety setback, the future of drilling within 1.5 miles of the outcrop in Archuleta County remains unclear. However, with Udall and Salazar now in the fray, perhaps the tone of discussions will change.

“While we need to explore and utilize our natural resources, we can’t do it at the expense of the health or safety of our local communities,” said Salazar. “Senator Udall and I believe that Archuleta County residents should receive the same level of oversight and protection as their neighbors in La Plata County.”

james@pagosasun.com