Thursday, November 02, 2006

Coal Methane Wealth from the HD Mountains?

Coal Methane Wealth from the HD Mountains?

Pagosa Springs Daily News: Coal Methane Wealth from the HD Mountains? Part One
Part One Bruce Andersen | 11/2/06

The HD Mountains lie comfortably isolated between the towns of Pagosa Springs, Bayfield, Ignacio and Arboles. The HDs, named for a 19th century cattle brand, have remained relatively unaltered for the past 150 years and contain some of the last old growth ponderosa pine forests left in the southern Rockies, according the the US Forest Service. Groves of trees 200-300 years old are commonplace there with some ancients pushing the 500-year mark. But this will all change if oil companies have their way and a federal plan to open the HD Mountains to coal methane development goes through. A final decision was due out last month.

Archuleta County Commissioner John Egan became the designated local point man for the complex issue when he brought the issue of drafting a resolution on the matter to the Board of County Commissioners in early September. I visited with him recently at his home in Pagosa Springs. John and his family live in a town house, which up until recently in downtown Pagosa meant simply a house in town. This old house has some history, it seems, with real wood siding, pastel paint and a full-length enclosed back porch rimmed with houseplants that serves as the main entrance. A friendly voice from within calls me in. The screen door slams as Labrador pup Luke heads out for a jaunt, cold drinks are served and we sit at a large dining room table in this airy sunroom. I elbow some official-looking papers aside and settled in. John spent a recent Sunday in the HD Mountains, along with Congressman John Salazar, Bayfield Mayor James Harrmann, Forest Service Supervisor Mark Stiles and local landowners Bill and Beth Vance who farm on the outcrop of the Fruitland Coal Formation.

Egan is concerned, “The area is ripe for all kinds of problems. It’s a fragile area with catastrophic potential problems including spontaneous combustion and underground fires, forest fires and water contamination.” The county’s resolution identified these problems, especially as they relate to drilling near the Fruitland Outcrop, a particularly sensitive area where the coal seam reaches near the surface. The San Juan Citizens Alliance is very active on oil and gas issues as well as other environmental issues around the region. Saving the HD Mountains is one of their priorities. According to their reports (see extracting gas up the well pipes will result in ground water above and near those wells to be depleted. Water essentially fills the void left by the harvested gas by seeping down the natural fractures and porous soils and is extracted along with coal methane gas during pumping. The result is a lowering of the water table, drying up wetlands and domestic and irrigation wells. And contamination of near surface wells. With the water gone, voids are left near the surface and air can seep down to fill the void. If the right amount oxygen meets warming temperatures of the voids, pyrites in the coal can spontaneously combust into an underground coal fire.

San Juan Citizens Alliance and independent consultant reports identify the hazards that directly affect those living and working on or near the Fruitland Formation. John sums it up this way, “There are four underground coal fires burning out of control right now in La Plata County and another in New Mexico. Ground water is being contaminated. We need to protect the Fruitland Formation and a 1 ½ mile buffer around it; that’s what our resolution states. Most of the outcrop is in Archuleta County. Without that protection, people’s lives would be impacted drastically. There have been several occasions where oil companies had to buy homes because methane problems made the homes uninhabitable. They could close US Highway 160 for an indeterminate amount of time if something bad happens.”

And, these are just the concerns if something goes wrong. If things go right, the mostly roadless 35,000-acre area will become webbed with some 60 miles of new roads and nearly 200 gas wells, 48 within the 1 ½ mile buffer around the Outcrop. Egan recommended that the Commission enlist the services of the San Juan Citizens Alliance to monitor drilling on the HDs. “They’ve already done the homework. They know the problem, the location and the science. For us, it would require new staff and a steep learning curve. Why reinvent the wheel? We should use that knowledge.” State Representative Mark Larson, in a quick rain-drenched speech last Saturday in Pagosa’s Town Park urged the soggy crowd to keep an eye on the HD Mountains and reminded us that the Fruitland Outcrop and the 1 ½ mile buffer needs protection.

These concerns, voiced by many, led the Board of County Commissioners to pass a resolution in early September outlining their concerns about developing coal bed methane within 1.5 miles of the Fruitland Formation Outcrop. In that resolution, these and other concerns were spelled out and steps to ensure Archuleta doesn’t follow La Plata County down the same problem-laden road were detailed. Congressman Salazar is taking this very seriously, also, John told me. He’s asked for Forest Service to carefully monitor the area and conduct further studies of the hydrology in and near the formation. Part Two tomorrow...

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