Remember The First Time Colorado Tried Fracking With A Nuclear Bomb?

DENVER – On Sept. 10, 1969, six and a half miles south of Rulison, Colorado, a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded in the subterranean depths of the Piceance Basin.

The device, more than twice as powerful as the weapon at Hiroshima and with muscle equivalent to 40,000 tons of TNT, was an unorthodox tool in a grand experiment to free natural gas and kickstart a boom. The nuclear age wanted to give the oil and gas age a hand up.

“It felt like a very slow-moving tremble,” Parachute resident Judy Beasley said. “It was like a flowing of energy [underground].”

Miles closer to the blast zone it “was like a train rushing up the canyon,” Lee Hayward told Look Magazine in 1970. Hayward’s family owned the land where the experiment took place.

“Cliffs started pouring rocks. It was quite a show, really,” Hayward said.

Go back 50 years and the scene in Parachute (in 1969 it was referred to as Grand Valley) felt almost festive. Enterprising types peddled souvenirs. While a few dozen activists protested, most locals like Beasley had the afternoon of the blast off work. Everyone was told to be outside at the 3 p.m. detonation time for fear the shot would damage buildings and cause injuries. Roadblocks were setup and a throng of reporters, G-men, scientists, congressmen and foreign observers descended on this sleepy section of what is now the I-70 corridor to bear witness.

Judy Beasley, who has a long history in Parachute, Colo., shares some of her stories in her home, Aug. 27, 2019. (Photo by Jim Hill/CPR News)

“We were whooping it up,” Beasley said. “We were really fortunate that we didn’t have that much damage.”

In the end the blast caused few problems for the locals. Some chimneys lost bricks, including Beasley’s. A few pickle jars fell to the ground in her pantry.

Several couples who lived within five miles of Hayward’s land ignored the evacuation and rode out the detonation. The wife of William Rankin told the Associated Press they planned to get their dogs into the station wagon and then “have a picnic down in the corn patch.”

As much as times change, the promise heard in many rural towns remains the same. There are much needed jobs and economic development underfoot, we need only unlock the riches from tight shale and other stubborn rocks. Rulison was perhaps the grandest vision of that ever put forward on the Western Slope.

In Hindsight, This Wasn’t a Job for an Atom Bomb

Drill rigs and well pads dot the landscape today. Garfield and Mesa counties — along with state-leading Weld on the Front Range — transformed into energy powerhouses thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a process where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced underground to free the fossil fuels within.

But in the 1950s, the idea was that a bomb might be better.

Left: The Project Rulison 40-kiloton nuclear device is lowered into its 8,442-foot deep emplacement hole on Aug. 14, 1969. Right: A government-prepared map from 1969 for the day of the detonation.

Project Rulison was part of a much larger government initiative called The Plowshare Program. It was an effort focused on peaceful and commercial applications for nuclear explosives after World War II.

“It boggles the mind that people would believe in this stuff, but if you put yourself in the minds of the Plowshares people, this is progress, this is modernity, this can be done,” said Scott Kaufman, the author of “Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America,” a 2013 history book.

“They saw [Rulison] as an alternative to fracking that in their minds would be cheaper, it would do a better job, and therefore companies involved in the effort would make a lot more money.”

Houston, Texas-based Austral Oil and CER Geonuclear Corporation footed 90 percent of the freight while the federal Atomic Energy Commission, now the U.S. Department of Energy, picked up the remainder of the trial balloon’s cost. In a community thank-you advert found in the archive at the Rifle Branch of the Garfield County library, the chairman and president of Austral practically gushed about the possibilities.

“We are proud to be a permanent part of this community, and in the months and years ahead, we will do our best to be good neighbors and merit the support you have generously given us. We are confident — that as our program progresses — we will be able to produce natural gas from Rulison Field by nuclear stimulation, safely and economically, to benefit your communities, your state and our nation.”

Rulison wasn’t the first attempt to give oil and gas development an atomic lift. Plowshares tried the concept first in New Mexico. Project Gasbuggy used a 26-kiloton thermonuclear bomb just 4,200 feet underground but there was too much contamination in the result. The scientists behind Rulison hoped a device that relied on nuclear fission instead of fusion would produce far less of the radioactive element tritium. No radiation was released into the air after the Sept. 10 shot and the initial results indicated a success — and Plowshares gave the greenlight to another test.

That next experiment took place May 17, 1973 in Rio Blanco County, 35 miles northwest of Rifle with three bigger bombs — but that’s another story.

Modern Rural Living at Surface Ground Zero

Today the Rulison site is mostly forgotten. A small, tombstone-like monument stands sentinel in an open field behind a fence that says “No Trespassing.” As it was in 1969, Surface Ground Zero remains in private hands. The test was never on government land.

Coreen Hamilton owns the 26-acre stretch of land where the blast cavity lurks underneath. A previous landowner built the log cabin that Hamilton lives in, which she purchased last summer.

“We find surprises every day,” said Hamilton. “That’s cable wire,” she said as she pointed to black cord jutting out of the dirt that used to bring electricity to the site. She pointed to a second slab of concrete. “There’s a pad.” That’s where the generator stood.

Continue reading the original report by Colorado Public Radio here.

Coloradans reject setback restrictions on new oil and gas development

DENVER – Colorado oil and gas companies landed a significant victory election night as voters rejected sweeping restrictions on the booming industry.

Proposition 112 would have required any new oil and gas development that’s not on federal land to be set back at least 2,500 feet — almost half a mile — from homes and such “vulnerable areas” as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The current limit is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings.

Although natural gas production has been stable over the past decade, oil production in Colorado has doubled in the past five years – the bulk of it driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics of the well-stimulation technique say it poses dangers to public health.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said workers got involved because their livelihoods were at stake.

“What’s been amazing to me is seeing the people in this industry step forward. People who don’t like politics and don’t want to be involved in politics, but they understand you don’t get to choose your moment,” Haley said.

Oil and gas companies, including Anadarko and Noble Energy, poured millions into the political interest group Protect Colorado. Through mailers, door-to-door visits and TV ads the group trumpeted the industry’s economic success, and raised concerns about what would be lost if companies faced new restrictions.

The opponents said the measure would have banned new oil and gas activity on most non-federal land in Colorado and cost the state jobs. The industry generated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017,they said, and supported many other industries and jobs. State and local governments would also receive less in tax revenue if the measure were to pass, they argued.

Supporters of the measure said it would have reduced health and nuisance impacts — headaches, nausea, traffic and dust, for example — associated with drilling sites. They say it would have given property owners greater certainty about the location of new oil and gas sites close to their property.

Loading Graphic…

Fracking opponents are running out of avenues to challenge drilling in Colorado. In 2012 and 2013, Longmont and Fort Collins imposed short- and long-term bans on oil and gas development, but the Colorado Supreme Court rendered those efforts illegal. Efforts to impose greater setbacks through the Legislature have failed.

One of the few remaining challenges lies in another legal challenge before the same court: Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That case challenges the commission, which is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, to prioritize health and safety over resource development. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the next year.

Oil production has doubled in the state since 2013, and as of 2017, the state had 54,000 producing wells. Natural gas production has been stable for the past decade. But an increase in population along the northern Front Range means more people now are living near oil and gas facilities.

Helium producer leases land near Petrified Forest in Arizona, concerning environmentalists

PHOENIX – A Canadian energy company will add to its helium operation with more than 3,000 acres of newly leased federal land near Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona. But an environmental group and Arizona U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran worry that operations could threaten key water sources and at least two endangered species.

Desert Mountain Energy Corp. of Vancouver purchased two oil and gas leases auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management late last week, paying $2 an acre. The company already leases nearly 37,000 acres of state land in the nearby Holbrook Basin, where the company has found seven helium deposits so far. Helium is critical to manufacturing, technology and aerospace industries.

Arizona does not have a rich history of natural gas deposits, but the oil and natural gas rights to land in the basin are a hot commodity to energy developers who believe “Arizona is the Saudi Arabia of helium.”

Irwin Olian, president and CEO of Desert Mountain Energy, said drilling for helium does not require heavy infrastructure, and deposits are relatively shallow.

But not everyone considers helium production to be minimally risky.

Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner with the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, said he is afraid “industrialization” of the area would have a negative impact on the ecosystem by creating noise, light and water pollution.

McKinnon also said nothing in these leases prohibit fracking in the future, and that Desert Mountain Energy Corp.’s “modern drilling and production techniques” could still use some form of chemically enhanced fracturing, such as acid fracking, to get helium out of the ground.

“The use of acid chemicals in the drilling process is something that would concern anyone,” McKinnon said.

Helium is mined using vertical wells drilled straight down over likely deposits. Once the gas is found, the pressure underground pushes it up through the hollow center of the drill and into a series of pipes to separation tanks. In these tanks, water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are removed from the gaseous mixture. The result, 99 percent pure helium, is cooled to a liquid form and transported away for use.

McKinnon also is concerned about two federally endangered species – the Little Colorado spinedace, a small, silver fish, and the western yellow-billed cuckoo – that could be in the crosshairs if fluids used in the operation got into surface or groundwater.

Several rivers and streams flow near the leased parcels and empty into the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million Americans. The Little Colorado River, one of Arizona’s major tributaries to the Colorado, is one of them. McKinnon worries that an accidental spill from the helium operation could get into these waterways and threaten human health.

“This water flows downstream, through several communities, small farming communities, Holbrook, Winslow, and eventually finds its way into the Grand Canyon,” he said.

O’Halleran, D-Sedona, sent two letters to the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management citing “serious concerns” with the leases, including the threat of runoff into the Little Colorado and Puerco rivers.

In his second letter, sent the day after Desert Mountain Energy Corp.’s bid was approved, O’Halleran accused the BLM of conducting last week’s auction without public input.

“It is essential that any action that could contaminate or threaten water supply from the Colorado River not move forward,” he wrote.

Olian, Desert Mountain Energy’s CEO, said Arizona was first put on the map for helium production during the space race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The gas, for example, was used to cool the engines on Apollo 11 for the moon mission.

“Holbrook Basin has the potential to be one of the world’s leading sources of helium once again,” he said.

Today, technology companies including Google and Netflix use helium as a coolant for server banks. That’s helped put the gas, once again, at a premium.

But helium is only created during radioactive decay of such elements as uranium over millions of years, so it’s finite. Scientists are unsure exactly how much helium is left on earth, but the supply will dwindle as the gas escapes into the atmosphere.

Related story

Sportsmen push to keep uranium mining ban near Grand Canyon

The U.S. produces more than half of the world’s helium supply, and much of it comes from Kansas, Texas and a federal helium reserve that was created during the 1960s.

The process of drilling for helium is relatively simple, Olian said.

“Helium does not really require huge infrastructure like a gold mine or copper mine,” he said. “The impact is relatively minimal. And these wells can be drilled very quickly.”

Desert Mountain Energy plans to conduct seismology studies in the fall to prepare for drilling once permits are approved by the federal government.

“The beauty of it is, typically, most of the helium wells are, in many cases, very shallow. For instance, only 1,500 feet,” Olian said. “These are small, shallow wells. There’s very little if any environmental impact.”

Desert Mountain Energy Corp. has not had any accidents while exploring for helium in Arizona.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees millions of acres of public land across the country, mainly in the West, will need to approve permits before drilling can begin, according to Adam Eggers, a public affairs specialist for the agency.

Oil and natural gas leases for BLM land last for 10 years.

Desert Mountain Energy bought the leases at $2 an acre, which translates to nearly $11,000, including agency fees and other add-ons.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.