Colorado landowners wary of effort to resume drilling
August 9, 2009
DENVER – Melanie Bounds remembers talking to her husband outside on their deck when an explosion blew the roof off the building housing their water well. She could see her husband’s mouth moving, but couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“It was deafening,” Bounds said.
More than two years later, the Bounds still have to vent their well and home to make sure the methane gas responsible for the big boom doesn’t rebuild to explosive levels. Ben and Melanie Bounds and other residents of Huerfano County in south-central Colorado blame natural gas drilling for the methane that has seeped into their wells and made them fear switching on lights in their homes.
That’s why they and their neighbors on the edge of the San Luis Valley are warily watching as Petroglyph Energy seeks state and federal approval to run tests to try to stop the methane leaks and eventually start drilling again.
After investigating the Bounds’ explosion and other complaints, state regulators halted Petroglyph’s operations in July 2007. A state order requires the Boise, Idaho-based company to monitor water wells, remove methane from water and find a way to keep the methane from migrating before starting to drill again.
A hearing is set for Monday in Walsenburg, about 10 miles east of the Bounds’ property, on Petroglyph’s request for a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to pump water and reinject it into wells. The company hopes to create a barrier of water to prevent methane from going where it shouldn’t.
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Pumping the area groundwater is thought to be at the heart of the problems plaguing area landowners. Petroglyph has drilled 52 coal bed methane wells in the area. Pumping huge volumes of groundwater frees the natural gas trapped in the coal beds.
The problem, said Bounds, is the flow of gas isn’t under control. She believes the gas, freed by the release of water pressure, is moving through underground fractures.
“We are being forced right now to live with something that is colorless, odorless and has the potential to harm us,” said Bounds, who with her husband is suing Petroglyph over the methane problems.
Paul Powell, Petroglyph’s chief operating officer, said the EPA permit would allow the company to pump groundwater from one formation and inject the water into wells in another formation to create a hydraulic barrier, isolating the methane gas. The company will have to treat the water it injects.
State regulators have final say over the company’s plan to stem the methane flows.
“The gas will migrate into a void,” Powell said. “The more water we fill up around it, we create greater pressure, it will keep methane from migrating out.”
That’s the hope, but some area landowners say it’s just a theory and they don’t want their homes and water wells subjected to an experiment.
“They haven’t even determined what caused this,” Bounds said.
Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, said state officials are monitoring Petroglyph’s progress. He said drilling won’t resume unless the commission is satisfied the company has solved the problem.
“The commission is going to need to assure itself that continued production will protect people’s health, safety and welfare,” Neslin said. “That’s something we feel very strongly about.”
This isn’t the first time coal bed methane drilling has created problems in Colorado. A house under construction west of Trinidad exploded in 2007 when methane gas leaked from an abandoned well and into the building.
Several families in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico sued gas producers in the 1990s, claiming coal bed methane drilling contaminated their water wells. People reported being able to set their water on fire because it contained gas.
Coal bed methane wells are typically shallower than other natural gas wells, which can be drilled thousands of feet below water wells.