On outcrop, big risk for small amount of gas

The history of natural gas development in Southwest Colorado is full of unpredicted and unintended consequences.

The advent of coal-bed methane production in the area brought with it the usual concerns of impacts to landowners’ properties, truck traffic, noise and wildlife habitat fragmentation.

In a relatively short order, these were joined by gas seeps either increasing in intensity or popping up where there had been no seep before; gas levels increasing in water wells, to the point that some homes needed to be modified to not have explosive levels in the basement or crawlspace; springs running dry; and coal-seam fires that after more than a decade of efforts, have proved extremely difficult or impossible to extinguish.

Most of these issues have occurred near the outcrop of the Fruitland formation. The Fruitland is the geologic formation that has the coal seams from which the gas is developed. The outcrop is where this formation comes to the surface. In Colorado, it forms a rough half-circle from just east of where the La Plata Highway crosses the New Mexico/Colorado line, up to the Animas River by the La Plata County Humane Society, along the Florida River and then southeast, running along U.S. Highway 160 from the top of Yellowjacket Pass, south of Chimney Rock, and into the Southern Ute reservation.

In response to the outcrop issues, local governments, state and federal agencies, local residents and the gas industry have spent a lot of time and money studying, monitoring, remediating and arguing about what caused what and how to handle the situations.

A buffer zone was established that effectively prohibited gas wells within a mile and a half of the outcrop.

One would think, and hope, that we have learned from this history of hard-to-solve and dangerous consequences of drilling near the outcrop. Now, the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with a plan to drill within this buffer zone.

The well would be on private land, with federal minerals underneath. Just south of Highway 160, a few miles west of the Piedra River, the area that could be affected is primarily along the highway.

A recently released study, “2011 Outcrop Zone Report,” is being used as the justification for this decision. Unfortunately, this document is not very available to the public, because the implications are huge.

If a coal seam fire were to start, the primary east-west highway of the region could be affected, directly and indirectly, through possible forest fires starting from the coal fire. There are numerous spring-irrigated hay fields that could be lost if the springs run dry. Oh, and several private homes could be lost.

The BLM is relying upon a once-a-year hike along the outcrop to monitor the situation, even though its study failed to include several springs in the area.

The BLM must not allow the development of a very small amount of gas to overrule its responsibility to the health and safety of the public. It seems to have strange priorities these days.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

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