Gas Pains

Drilling for natural gas on the Western Slope has punched holes in some residents' dreams of solitude. Others see it as the way of the West.

The Goads are still having troubles, even after consulting with three water specialists, who first tried to aerate the soil to get rid of the gas. Then they tried to pump the water out of the well, filter it aboveground and pump it back in. Finally, last year, Barrett paid to drill a line across their property to hook them up to an uncontaminated water source. "It could happen again," says Kay Goad. "Methane gas is odorless and colorless. If that had filtered into our home earlier that evening, we could have woken up dead. Plus, it could have ignited; it could have blown."

Voicing a common position, she says she's not against the drilling. She realizes people own mineral rights and the gas is underneath their land. But, she asks, "Why do we need to get it all out today?"

Anthony Camera
Bill Clough, who owns 8,000 acres near Parachute, thinks the drilling on his land is fine.
Anthony Camera
Bill Clough, who owns 8,000 acres near Parachute, thinks the drilling on his land is fine.

On a flat plateau up the side of the Roan Cliffs stands a rig. About 100 feet tall and gleaming in blue and white, the 595-ton behemoth is powered by a noisy array of diesel and diesel-electric engines housed in large blue trailers.

As the drill bores 7,000 feet into the earth, a slurry of water and mud is pumped into the ground to flush out "cuttings," tiny pieces of rock and debris that are disposed of in a large pit adjacent to the rig. As the slurry returns to the surface, it is collected in vats -- where its density is gauged -- then pumped back into the hole. Eventually the pit of cuttings will dry up, leaving a shallow, empty bowl of dirt.

The young but weathered crew on this rig is from Vernal, Utah (a few hours northwest of Parachute), and they'll be here for a few weeks. They're extracting gas from sandstone, but sand is layered between stacks of sandstone some several thousand feet thick, so the sand has to be densely drilled. Once a hole is drilled, a well is inserted and encased in concrete to stabilize it. Then, up to a million pounds of a sand-and-fluid mixture are piped down the well. Through tiny holes created in the well itself, the fluid fractures the subterranean sandstone, increasing the surface area of recoverable natural gas. The sand is pumped in to prop up the rock and allow the gas to flow more easily. "Frac-ing," as the process is known, was developed in the '70s and has gradually made getting to natural-gas reservoirs more economical.

It takes between fifteen and 25 days to drill one well, another eighteen to cement the well, and four or five days more to build the pad. Most of the gas Barrett recovers, compressed to 300 pounds per square inch, is transported up Parachute Creek to a large processing facility, where it is chilled to -36 degrees Fahrenheit so that natural liquids such as propane and butane can be extracted. Then the gas is compressed to 800 pounds per square inch and shipped through pipelines across the region and the country.

All in all, it's a good business for Williams and district manager Soychak, who leads a tour of the area in a beefy Ford Expedition. He points out that, in the case of natural gas, part of the nation's energy needs are being met by a domestically produced source. And despite the GVCA's complaints, Soychak says steps to minimize the wells' intrusiveness are in place. Below the giant rig is a flat area just off the highway that is covered with sagebrush and other semi-arid vegetation. Here the wells are barely visible little pipes and valves, not much bigger than the electric meter on the side of your house. The nearby pads are larger - they resemble power boxes -- but the most conspicuous thing about them are the gleaming solar panels tilted toward the sun. Soychak says the panels power sensors that allow wells to be monitored from a central office, cutting down on worker trips into the field. He also notes that the equipment is painted desert tan to blend in.

Soychak thinks the criticism of drilling is overblown. "I think we're doing something right," he says. The company pays taxes in the county, of course, and he estimates that only about twenty wells are closer than 1,000 feet to anyone's home. (Wells have to be at least 350 feet away.) The majority of residents in the area where Williams drills own their surface rights and at least some piece of their mineral rights. Consequently, he says he gets more calls from people who want to work a deal than from people complaining: "Most people want us to drill on their land." He says some want their land cleared and want the access roads. "Most of the old-timers -- folks who grew up here fifty years ago -- don't mind the drilling," he says. He also finds critics a little selfish. After all, he notes, "We are providing energy to the rest of the country."

And Soychak says that the company's reclamation efforts are working: He has seen deer foraging on pads that have been reclaimed. Clough says Barrett has reseeded all the pads on his property. "I'm just tickled as hell with it," he says. "Every pad they've drilled, I've got good grass. Deer come down and winter."

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