Gas Pains

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"The soil in west Garfield County, once it's disturbed, springs noxious weeds," says GVCA member Shirley Willis. "[Developers] knock down trees and cut out shrubs. They don't come back. It takes years."

"When I was out there looking at reclamation work, I felt that a lot of it was really inadequate," says Ed Redente, a professor of rangeland ecosytems at Colorado State University. "It was apparent that higher density was only going to lead to greater problems." Redente says that poor reclamation can lead to erosion, poor vegetation and inadequate habitat for wildlife.

As proof, the GVCA points to a 2000 report prepared by a wildlife biologist stating that increased drilling in Parachute Creek, north of Parachute, has led to a decline in the population of a non-migrating herd of mule deer. The herd at one time represented one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in the state, numbering as high as several thousand. And another study, also completed last year by a San Mateo, California, air-quality laboratory, reported that benzene, a known cancer-causing agent, was detected near a well in Rulison at twice the ambient-air standard.

In addition to the reports, there are plenty of anecdotes about upheaval caused by drilling. The GVCA says it has heard from more than 200 people statewide with complaints. But few can compare to the disruption that began four years ago when Kay and Wendell Goad's water well blew after a gas well exploded almost a mile away.

At first the Goads didn't make the connection to the mining operation. Wendell was heading to work when he came down his driveway and saw it was flooded. He thought the problem was with his water well, so he shut down power to the pump. But water kept coming, and Goad guessed that the source of the trouble was the nearby wells. He called Barrett, whose crew arrived quickly. However, pressure led the gas 4,000 feet underground to the Goad's water well. Gas had leaked into their home as well, and the couple had to move out for several days. For months afterward, they had to keep their windows open and run a fan in the crawl space. Cigarette smoking was banned on the property.

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?"

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.

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T.R. Witcher