Swift begins construction of shale-oil well

County waiting before considering new regulation

Swift Energy began construction on western La Plata County’s first shale-oil well last week after clearing the final hurdle of county land-use approval.

The Houston-based oil and gas company is working on road improvements and well-pad construction with plans to have a rig in place by mid-August, said Bob Redweik, Swift’s corporate manager for health, safety and environment.

Swift’s drilling plans have captured the county’s attention. Many speculate that if successful this wildcat well could herald a boom in shale development that, so far, has passed over this corner of Colorado.

New shale drilling techniques and technologies have changed the landscape of energy production across the country, allowing producers to reach untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. At the same time, these methods have raised concerns about potentially new and unknown impacts to water, air and land.

Concerns about shale drilling, especially potential impacts to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing, has drawn crowds of residents to county commissioner and community meetings. Many argued for the county to enact a moratorium on shale drilling to better study the practice before allowing it in the county.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt has repeatedly pressed her fellow commissioners to consider changing the county’s gas and oil regulations to address shale development specifically.

As of now though, commissioners have decided to take a wait-and-see approach until the county has assessed the production and impacts of Swift’s well.

“All eyes will be on Swift,” Lachelt said.

Here’s a breakdown of Swift’s plans and how they compare with the previous drilling across the county:

Swift currently is not planning to use hydraulic fracturing, which will drastically reduce the amount of water the company will use in the drilling process. The company expects to use about 210,000 gallons of water, Redweik said. That’s compared to the 191,000 gallons of water Samson Resources Co. used to drill a horizontal coalbed methane well in 2011.

Swift’s target is the Niobrara formation about 2,500 feet below the surface. Other well permits approved by the state over the past year planned to drill to vertical depths of 3,000 to 9,000 feet. The horizontal portion of Swift’s well will extend about 4,000 feet, which is similar to the 3,750-foot horizontal arm of the Samson Resources coalbed methane well.

Swift will initially construct a 4-acre well pad, then will downsize the well pad to a permanent area of about 2 acres. The permanent size of coalbed methane wells can range from four-fifths of an acre to about 1 acre depending on whether wells are co-located on the site, according to county records.

Swift has contracted with a New Mexico trucking company to haul water from Farmington. The company buys water from the city of Farmington. Other operators in the county get water from the Ignacio water station, ponds owned by a private landowner or the city of Farmington, said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council.

A Swift traffic study estimates that vehicles associated with the well will make between 10 and 120 trips per day during the construction phase and between eight and 16 trips per day during the 63-day drilling and completion phase. Vehicle traffic to wells in the San Juan Basin has been reduced in recent years because of pipeline infrastructure, said Courtney Roseberry, a natural resources planner with the county.

Swift agreed to voluntarily test the water wells of a handful of area residents, as well as the Marvel Spring, in addition to one well it is required to test, according to a memorandum of understanding with the county. The company has finished baseline testing of the seven water sources and will submit that data to the state database, Redweik said. Most other operators in the county are required to test the water wells of the two closest wells within a one-quarter mile radius of a proposed well, according to field-specific Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules.

Swift’s permit did not come before the county commissioners because natural-gas and oil well permits only require administrative review, according to the county’s code. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association approved Swift’s drilling permit late last month.

ecowan@durangoherald.com