Gunnison County gives approval for new gas wells

16 wells will be drilled on private land this spring

A vote of approval from the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) last week puts the Gunnison Energy Corporation over the final regulatory hurdle toward drilling 16 new natural gas wells northwest of Somerset.




Gunnison Energy Corporation officials hope that, beginning next spring, the wells, known as the Hotchkiss Federal Project, will be drilled from nine two-acre well pads, all on property owned by Hotchkiss Ranches Inc.
Although the land to be drilled on is mostly private, the gas rights are owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the access to the property will be via state roads, the county must approve the plan under its Temporary Regulations for Oil and Gas Operations before any drilling can be done.
The Planning Commission first reviewed the plan for the new wells in March. Between a second work session and a public hearing, revisions were made and the commission voted to pass a recommendation for approval on to the BOCC.
The drilling operation is scheduled to last five years.
“The term of a permit is typically less than that” said county assistant planning director Neal Starkebaum, “but an allowance was made at the request of the applicant. Initiation of the project has to begin within one year.”
Over the course of that time, Gunnison Energy Corporation (GEC) hopes to pull as much as one million cubic feet of natural gas from each well and transport it through an underground pipeline. From the field, the gas is pumped through the Ragged Mountain Pipeline to the Rocky Mountain Gas Pipeline and eventually to a compressor/treatment facility to be refined into pure methane before heading to market.
As it comes from the ground, the natural gas is 99 percent pure methane, said GEC president Brad Robinson.
GEC is a subsidiary of the Oxbow Group, which also owns the West Elk Coal Mine in Somerset, and holds leases for gas under more than 100,000 acres of public and private land in Gunnison, Delta and Mesa counties, according to the company’s website.
To get at the methane, well bores are drilled into the ground and “drilling mud,” made up of 13 ingredients from polymers to walnut shells, is injected at a high speed into the holes to fracture the rock and release the gas.
The drilling mud that is returned to the surface is stored in a containment pit; in some cases the mud is treated before being shipped to a landfill.
“If you look at the frac[turing] fluids that we use, we don’t use anything really nasty—we don’t use a lot of chemicals. In some cases where they have many wells on a pad they can’t have a pit big enough so they are mixing it with sawdust and things and sending it to the county dump,” said Robinson.
In this particular plan, 16 wells will be drilled on nine two-acre pads where the soil has been scraped to the side and replaced with rock to support the drilling rig. When the operation is complete, GEC will be required to spread the soil over the site and reseed as part of a reclamation process that could last several years.
One concern for the county commissioners was the treatment of water samples that are used to measure the effects of the drilling operation on the aquifer that shares the area. The general feeling among the board was that having a third party collect samples would eliminate the appearance of bias.
“With regard to Division of Wildlife, they are the third party. They’re out on the property when it comes to wildlife. When it comes to monitoring the quality of the water analysis we have a commitment to take water samples from the wells and supply them to the county,” said Robinson. “We usually hire a contractor to do the collection.”
Commissioner Hap Channell felt a third party would be a good idea for the sake of uniformity with previous oil and gas operations in the county.
“I thought the practice was really good as far as protection for the operator and the permitting agencies that were in charge of the Bull Mountain pipeline. And if it was a good practice then it seems like it should apply across the board,” said Channell.
According to assistant county manager Marlene Crosby, there are only two labs in the state certified to analyze water samples, leaving the county, the state and the company with the same options for analysis.
“If you guys are ever concerned, it’s not a hard process to have someone come out and witness the sampling or take custody of the sample. The cost is the same to us,” said Robinson.

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