State gas commission sees little chance of drilling in Pitkin Co.
The surge in gas exploration and production that has raised such a ruckus in two of Pitkin County’s neighbors shows little threat of creeping into the Redstone or Carbondale areas.
The geology that made Pitkin County such a scenic treasure apparently didn’t endow it with gas reserves that are easy to recover, according to Rich Griebling, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission.
He said the state agency has no pending applications for drilling in Pitkin County even though its western edge is within the Piceance Basin, the second most heavily drilled area in Colorado.
The basin contains 20 percent of all active gas wells in the state, Griebling said. Most of them are in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.
The area west of Rifle in Garfield County has been heavily developed in the last decade with wells that tap individual pockets of gas trapped in sandstone. “That area is one of the most active in the state,” Griebling said.
Delta County, over McClure Pass from Redstone, is now being targeted by companies seeking gas contained in significantly different ways than the fields of Rifle. Gunnison Energy Corp. has applied to drill four exploratory wells seeking coal-bed methane.
They want to assess the size of reserves trapped within the coal beds between the towns of Delta and Paonia and how easy it would be to extract them.
Pitkin County also has underground reserves of coal in the Coal Basin area west of Redstone and Thompson Creek south of Carbondale. Griebling said there is little doubt those coal beds contain methane. The issue is how costly is it to extract.
He said prior tests have shown that the coal in Pitkin County has a low permeability, so the cost of extracting gas would be high. However, Griebling said he wasn’t trying to suggest that exploration isn’t possible in Pitkin County.
Many parts of Colorado have been mined for coal, but only the San Juan Mountain region and Las Animas County have proven lucrative for extracting coal-bed methane, according to Griebling.
But the industry has shown renewed interest in checking reserves elsewhere. Gunnison Energy Corp. received a permit earlier this month to drill four exploratory wells in Delta County.
Delta County residents formed the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance to challenge the way the state oil and gas commission approved the applications and to lobby the Delta County commissioners to take the initiative and enforce their own regulations.
The alliance hired Aspen land-use attorney Tom Smith to help press its legal case to block or at least control the drilling.
“This will set a significant precedent one way or another,” said Smith.
Smith and his legal allies are arguing that the state oil and gas commission doesn’t have the right to pre-empt the local authority with its ruling. Up to now, the commission has had the only say on gas-well applications in the state.
Garfield County residents concerned about the effects of gas exploration and production have tried unsuccessfully to get the commission to address their concerns about visual and water pollution.
In Delta County, residents claim that gas-well drilling, which produces significant amounts of waste water, could taint their water supplies.
They attempted to get the oil and gas commission to delay a hearing until they could voice their concerns. The commission issued permits before holding a hearing with citizens.
Griebling said the commission addressed what concerns it could, but not all issues citizens raised.
“What it comes down to is some people don’t want to develop in their county, period,” he said.
Smith said citizens wanted legitimate concerns addressed and have a right to expect it from the commission.
“What he’s telling you is exactly the point,” said Smith. “They put blinders on.”
Smith said the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance plans to appeal the commission’s approval of the four gas wells. If an administrative appeal isn’t successful, the case would likely be taken to court.
Meanwhile, the alliance is hoping to convince the Delta County commissioners to deny the application for the wells or approve them with stringent conditions. If the wells are denied, the ruling will likely be challenged in court by the oil industry, the oil and gas commission or both, Smith said. They would argue that a local government has no jurisdiction.
The alliance believes the beauty of their county is at stake. They believe Gunnison Energy could drill up to 600 wells on the 10,000 acres they have leased, including significant amounts of public lands.
Griebling said the drilling opponents arrived at their figures by taking the total acreage and dividing by the amount possible per well, creating the worst-case scenario.
“It’s a pretty bogus way of arriving at numbers,” said Griebling. He further claimed that the opposition is premature because the wells are only exploratory.
History has shown the area where exploratory wells are to be located haven’t shown much promise for coal-bed methane extraction.
“There’s been a lot of failed attempts in the past,” he said.
If that’s the case, said Smith, then perhaps the commission shouldn’t have approved additional exploratory wells.
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