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The Dark Domain: Resurrecting Project Rulison: Part Two (for Part One: see the September 28th entry just below)

September 30, 2007

What does Noble Energy want from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission?

…Or Alas!..Greed Trumps Caution Once Again

Under the cover of an emerging energy crisis, oil and gas companies the world round hope to bypass environmental concerns in their stampede for oil and gas drilling rights and the sizeable profits that go along with them. In this spirit, Noble Energy, an oil and gas company involved in drilling natural gas on Colorado’s Western Slope in Garfield County, is pressing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for a permit to drill within three miles of Project Rulison. Other companies with interests near the site include Williams Production and EnCana. The Commission meets in two days (October 2) to consider Noble’s request.

But the three mile exclusion zone has already been breeched and significantly so.

According to an article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel from July 24, 2007, there are currently 19 natural gas wells in various states of completion and 31 approved applications for a permit to drill within three miles of the blast site that have already been approved. The October 2 hearing comes after a US Department of Energy report, recently released, claiming that a gas well drilled a mere 851 feet from the blast site would not risk radio active contamination. (Daily Sentinel, Sept. 29).

For those not familiar with it, Project Rulison is the site of a September 10, 1969, 43 kiloton underground nuclear blast to create a natural gas cavity in the mountains. It was the work of the Atomic Energy Commission, in conjunction with Texas based natural gas producers at the time. The blast did take place (see Part One of the series – September 29, 2007) but the project was considered a failure because no one – not even corrupted utilities commissions of the day in western states – would buy its radioactive contaminated natural gas. Imagine.

At the time of the Rulison blast, many locals in Garfield County either supported Project Rulison or were neutral about the project and looked askance at demonstrators (among them my wife and I) that came to the ground zero to protest and try to prevent the project. Despite the presence of 25 or so protestors in the vicinity of the site, the atom bomb was detonated and protestors were lifted 6-8″ off the ground by the wave it triggered. Concern for resulting earthquakes closed mines that day as far away as Paonia on the far side of Grand Mesa.

Among those opposing Project Rulison in those early days were a pair of brothers moved to Colorado from Wisconsin (as I recall) Tom and Dick Lamm. Together they filed unsuccessful legal suits to try to stop the blast. Dick Lamm was already in the state legislature at the time, honing his considerable skills of sensing which ways the political winds blow. Long before he discovered his own `duty to die’ or how much mileage he could get from kicking undocumented Mexican workers in the teeth, Lamm already understood the untapped potential of the state’s emerging environmental movement. He sensed correctly that he could milk the environmental movement for everything it was worth, – which was a fair amount – an insight he rode to the state’s governorship after which he somehow made his peace with the state’s oil and gas interests (and much of the rest of the corporatocracy here). Still, for one shining moment Lamm positioned himself as one of the public spokespeople against Project Rulison, did some genuine work for the common good and filed a suit against Project Rulison. The suit failed, but the publicity launched Lamm’s image as a left-of-center Democrat. He’s since modified the image to adjust to changing times.

Today, the mood of many living in Colorado’s Garfield County towards natural gas drilling has hardened some There is some opposition to Noble’s plans to drill near Project Rulison.

What is it that Noble hopes to accomplish at Rulison?

First, the company is not planning, along with the government, to explode another underground nuclear bomb to release natural gas. I suppose we can be grateful for that.

Nor is it asking for a permit to drill into the blast site itself to recover the natural gas – much of it radioactive – bottled up there in the cavity that the September 10, 1969 explosion produced.Defying common sense and human safety, the natural gas producer is hoping to drill for new gas sources very close to the Project Rulison site. Undeterred by prospects of radio active contamination leaking from the Rulison cavity, the gas men in the area argue that people living close to Project Rulison are fine, and they, the drillers ought to have `the right’ to drill potentially radio active contaminated natural gas. The logic of the free market taken to its extreme. Milton Freeman must be cheering Noble on from his grave.

This reminds me of a hearing I attended 30 years ago in Broomfield Colorado not far from Denver. It had been determined that the Broomfield’s water supply had been contaminated with traces of radioactive isotopes seeping through the ground from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant. The results were not contested but all the same, a number of people testified – they happened to be family members of Rocky Flats workers – that they had an `inalienable democratic right’ to drink radio-actively contaminated water.

Coming from a sheltered home environment, I never knew that democracy could be extended to swallowing significant amounts of radioactive iodine and was somewhat startled by the argument (and never forgot it). Perhaps it wasn’t so much a question of democracy but rather an ordinary example of narrow self interest besting caution?

Drilling dangerously close to Project Rulison isn’t exactly the same thing, but still the parallel holds. At the very least it is something of an overstatement to argue that drilling for natural gas within three miles of the Rulison blast site is safe. All the drillers want is a few extra bucks and of course, a few less regulations. Perhaps though this is precisely the time when government should jump right back on their backs and stay there for the foreseeable future.

In the aftermath of the 1969 Rulison nuclear blast, it was determined by both federal and state regulatory agencies to establish a zone within a three mile radius of the blast site considered dangerous. Within this zone, no drilling for natural gas has been permitted. Reasonable enough. The actual cavity created by the bomb is surrounded by layers of sandstone rock that act as a natural sealant, insulating the radio-active natural gas from its surroundings. To date, according to the existing data available, there has been little known radio active contamination from the blast, but given current testing procedures and the lack of government transparency, combined with the long term dangers of radio active materials, this is not especially convincing.

What Noble hopes to do is to penetrate the 3 mile `danger zone’ surrounding the blast cavity to probe for other natural gas sources. Some natural gas drillers, unwilling to accept restrictions on their drilling rights are arguing that the 3 mile `danger zone’ is arbitrary and not based upon a scientific known calculation.

In a certain way, they are correct. But what is interesting is how they interpret this arbitrary measurement. One could logically argue that because the 3 mile danger zone is not clear that it should be extended to a 5 or even a 10 mile radius, and in so doing, placing caution before greed. The industry has chosen, it appears, and certainly not for the first time, to go the opposite route and place greed before caution. They want to penetrate the 3 mile danger zone, drilling ever closer and closer to the blast site. As they do, the danger of mining radio active natural gas from the blast site increases considerably.

There are a number of concerns here – all well known – that need to be considered.

1. It is simply irresponsible – and cynical – to argue that drilling in the vicinity of the site of Project Rulison site is safe.

Fissures (cracks) in the sandstone surrounding the blast site could currently exist, or given the continual movement and motion of the underground structures, possible in the future. Recently local residents discovered a leakage of natural gas (not Project Rulison related) into a nearby creek. The leakage was traced to a nearby drilling site which, it had been argued, was secure. Was the drilling company lying outright about the environmental impact or was it simply that their technical abilities, despite many claims of great advances, simply couldn’t pick it up?

2. There is still no clarity as to how much low level radiation is considered safe.

What we do know, thanks to the pioneering work of Rosalie Bertell and others, is that the dangers have been irresponsibly – if not criminally – understated. More and more the scientific community is coming to the conclusion that there are no `acceptable’ amounts of low level radiation. Substances with half lives of a half million years will be toxic for here to eternity, or nearly.

3. More or less the same logic being used to justify drilling closer and closer to Project Rulison has been used to argue that major nuclear weapons clean up sites – like Rocky Flats or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – have become detoxified and safe. As with Project Rulison, an arbitrary, bureaucratic decision – not based on science so much as on expediency – is being marketed to the public.

To place a foot or so of top soil upon a toxic radio active site like Rocky Flats – where the winds coming out of the mountains during the spring Chinooks can blow at more than 100 miles an hour – and then to declare by bureaucratic edict that the area is safe enough to transform it into a nature preserve – defies both caution and common sense.

Add to that the state’s (Colorado’s) admission that their own monitoring capabilities are lax, how difficult it is to track down federal monitoring results and the `safety’ arguments quickly dissolve. We simply don’t know how much radiation has escaped from Project Rulison – nor how much might be unleashed in the future.

4. Project Rulison, along with Project Gasbuggy and the Rio Blanco Project – three of the four energy related projects of Project Plowshare (see yesterday’s blog) to detonate underground nuclear blasts in conjunction with the oil and gas industry – was a colossal failure, nothing less. It was one of the most reckless and ill conceived projects in American history that has mauled the mountains in Colorado and New Mexico and would have done untold damage to Wyoming as well had Project Wagon Wheel gotten off the ground which fortunately enough it did not.

The worst part of it all was how transparent were its down sides: that the natural gases produced in such nuked cavities would contain levels of radio active contamination – which they did – and thus render them useless for commercial use for millennia (500 millennia to be exact). It was also predicted that such blasts – especially in the case of Project Rulison could easily trigger earth quakes (which it did near Aspen). The project was deemed completely commercially inviable, the sites themselves dangerous due to the actual and future dangers of radio active contamination. The only appropriate consequence of the whole project was the decision to close it down and to declare the surrounding areas as potentially dangerous. Nothing has transpired in the past 38 years to change that.

The futility (and absurdity) of the program is reflected in the fact that not one cubic foot of gas has been extracted from the three blast sites for commercial uses until the present and that the last phase, Project Wagon Wheel, which in terms of kilo-tonnage would have been the grand finale – was cancelled. It seems – at least in the 1960s and 1970s that customers declined to natural gas contaminated with traces of radioactivity.

Noble Industries should be prohibited from drilling near Rulison and should seek its fortune on more stable grounds. Let us hope that the Colorado Commission on Oil and Gas has the common sense and decency to reject Noble’s request. Wish I could be in Grand Junction on Tuesday to testify, but can only be there in spirit…through this blog.

http://cogcc.state.co.us/ = the website of Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Contact info is on the site – a letter or email protesting Nobel’s plans before Tues would help.

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