How much difference does a few miles make in our local geology? That's the underlying question in an ongoing debate about the safety of drilling for coalbed methane gas along the fringe of the San Juan Basin, in the so-called Fruitland formation buffer zone.It's a question that has garnered the attention of local land-owners and La Plata County commissioners for a long time. Last week, U.S. Rep. John Salazar and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall weighed in as well, with a request to Gov. Bill Ritter urging the same environmental and public health safeguards for drilling along the outcrop in Archuleta County as currently exist for La Plata County.
The San Juan Basin is like a large, shallow bowl. In the case of the Fruitland formation, which is the coal-bearing formation that hosts coalbed methane and is the target of much drilling, the coal seam outcrops as a hogback or ridge that generally parallels U.S. Highway 160 from Wal-Mart all the way to the Piedra River in Archuleta County.
In the early 1990s, drilling for coalbed methane along the outcrop, where the coal is shallow, was fingered as the cause of methane contamination of homes, springs and fields. A handful of homes along the Pine River were evacuated, purchased and demolished because of methane contamination. Once the water is pumped off the coal and the methane gas liberated, the methane often finds its way to the surface in unexpected routes leading to homes.
Because of the documented safety hazard, the state adopted a rule prohibiting drilling new wells within 1.5 miles of the Fruitland outcrop, hoping this setback would create enough of a safety zone to protect homeowners. The rule applied only to La Plata County, however.
A decade ago, the gas industry started showing interest to drill in adjacent Archuleta County, with many wells planned right along the Fruitland outcrop. Landowners and county officials were immediately concerned. Ultimately, however, the state accepted a geologic theory that the outcrop is different once you cross the county line, and staff at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission decided to gamble on this theory and not require a similar safety setback for wells drilled in Archuleta County.
Now, after pleas from the county commissioners went unanswered by the COGCC staff, Archuleta County has called in assistance from Salazar, Udall and Ritter to extend the safety buffer to protect the rural water sources and homes of residents.
The San Juan National Forest has adopted a wait-and-see attitude about approving wells on the outcrop on the national forest, willing to see if there are any catastrophic effects from the wells permitted first by the state. Given the poor history with similar wells in La Plata County, many landowners in Archuleta County are unwilling to serve as guinea pigs in a new geologic experiment.
Hats off to Congressman Salazar and Sen. Udall for taking seriously the concerns of residents and county officials. Next steps are up to the governor and his staff at the COGCC.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.