Project Rulison: Halting “Ground Zero” Gas Drilling

Project Rulison is an egregious example of the muddled thinking prevalent during the 1960s as part of the federal government’s “Operation Plowshare” which promoted the peaceful uses of atomic energy. One project under Operation Plowshare was to liberate natural gas trapped in tight sandstone or shale formations deep underground, and six atomic bombs were detonated for this purpose, two in Colorado. Watch a YouTube overview of Project Rulison (6 mins).

In 1969 at Rulison, CO the Atomic Energy Commission used a bomb three times larger than the one used on Hiroshima inserted 8,000 feet below the surface. A six-mile radius was evacuated, the ground shook, and the blast cracked a huge fracture zone liberating natural gas, but it was so highly radioactive it was unfit to use and was instead flared into the atmosphere for several months. The AEC resealed the opening and announced that no drilling would be allowed within a 3-mile radius of the crater. The story made national headlines and the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite, and a plaque was erected on the site as a “no-drill” zone.

Watch historic Walter Cronkite news coverage of Project Rulison (2 mins)

The Game-Changer: 600% Increase in
Gas Prices in the 1990s

Thirty years after the blast, several gas companies obtained leases to drill inside the 3-mile radius. Connie Harvey and other citizens who protested the ’69 blast contacted the Department of Energy (DOE), the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), and all agencies denied any interest and disclaimed responsibility for risks to workers, the public, or commercial consumers of groundwater and gas. In 2004, Presco, a small natural gas producer from Texas, filed four applications for permits to drill (APDs) within ½ mile of “ground zero.”

In late 2004, Public Counsel was contacted and immediately engaged Gunnison attorney Luke Danielson to represent the landowners at “ground zero”. The perseverance of landowners Ruth and Cary Weldon and Wes and Marcia Kent as well as the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Western Colorado Congress enabled a growing team of experts and lawyers to continue to block gas drilling near the blast site.

Cary and Ruth Weldon

Over the next five years, the efforts of Public Counsel and its team:

  • forced Presco in 2004 to withdraw APDs for four wells inside the ½ mile radius;
  • blocked all APDs since 2007 and thereby prevented all drilling within one-half mile of ground zero through a series of consecutive one-year moratoriums on APDs within the ½ mile radius;
  • organized the all-day COGCC information session in Grand Junction in 2007, leading to the development of a “Sampling and Monitoring Plan,” adopted by COGCC and imposed as conditions for continued drilling and production operations as well as conditions of approval for all proposed new wells within three miles of ground zero;

  • secured a COGCC Order in 2009 that the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment review and comment on any public health and safety issues or hazards raised by each APD within three miles and that special radionuclide monitoring conditions to be endorsed on all new permits to drill within three miles;
  • organized a second COGCC information session in 2009 in Glenwood Springs where DOE presented its “Path Forward” recommending, incredibly, that industry keep inching toward ground zero until an operator hits something;
  • convinced Garfield County’s BOCC and Oil & Gas Liaison in 2009 to reject DOE’s “Path Forward” as making gas field workers into guinea pigs and posing unnecessary risks to groundwater resources; and
  • convinced Garfield County’s Oil & Gas Liaison and Attorney’s Office in 2010 to file an amicus brief in support of our position in the Court of Appeals “test” case.
Citizens WIN “Test” Case in Court of Appeals

Important public health, safety, water, wildlife and similar public interest issues are almost impossible to be raise by citizens, their local or national organizations, or even the immediately adjacent neighboring landowners. Again and again for four years, our legal team requested hearings each and every time Encana, Williams, Nobel Energy or their predecessors applied for drilling permits inside the thre mile radius. Each request was denied, and in late 2008 Public Counsel filed a “best facts” law reform test case against the COGCC on behalf of our “ground zero” landowners, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Western Colorado Congress.

Under existing rules, only the energy company applying for a permit, the surface landowner where the down-hole is proposed and the local county has a right to request a hearing before the permit issues. The result is that virtually 100% of industry well permit requests are granted by administrative staff — with little notice, no hearings and no transparency.

The Denver District Court dismissed the case, and the landowners organized an appeal. Public Counsel organized and enlisted significant amicus curiae support in the Court of Appeals case. In addition to strong briefs from Gunnison, Saguache, Pitkin, and even Garfield County (the epicenter of gas drilling in Colorado the last few years) weighed in on our side. These counties all addressed the important policy reasons why the narrow COGCC standing rule should be declared illegally restrictive. These briefs in varying degrees pointed out that county politics and county budget shortfalls preclude most elected County Commissioners most of the time from asking for an adjudicatory hearing against major industry players where the tab for lawyers and experts – to prevail at the hearing and in ensuing court proceedings — could easily exceed $1 million.

On June 24, 2010, the Court of Appeals struck down the restrictive rule, declaring that the agency rule that excluded ordinary citizens, neighboring landowners and public interest groups could not “trump” the plain meaning of the Commission’s authorizing statute which allows “any interested person” to petition for a hearing. Citizens finally had the right to be heard in formal hearings in order to raise issues of contamination of ground water, land and air, other public health, wildlife habitat and refuges, encroachment on wilderness study areas or state and national parks, and proximity to homes and schools.

Predictably, the industry and state agency sought and obtained a hearing in the Colorado Supreme Court, and the “test” case was briefed and argued a second time. On November 30, 2011, the Supreme Court reversed and vacated the Court of Appeals ruling, reinstating the restrictive rule on citizen participation.

Public Counsel is currently evaluating options to revise and expand standing through a Rulemaking proceeding before the COGCC. Public Counsel is also considering initiating a mineral lease exchange and withdrawal strategy whereby Encana, Williams and Nobel Energy and their underlying royalty holders would receive comparable mineral leases elsewhere. If this could be secured, then a proposed exclusionary zone around the Rulison blast site could be withdrawn from any future gas drilling, in perpetuity through an Act of Congress.

Public Counsel acknowledges that the principal funding for this project has been generously provided by The New-Land Foundation.

© Jonathan Kloberdanz









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