EnCana Site a Showcase For Industry's Lighter Touch

by David Frey
PARACHUTE -- On the western flanks of the Roan Plateau, one of Garfield County's biggest players in the natural gas industry is developing techniques to lessen its impact on the environment.

Land has been set aside to preserve migration corridors for mule deer. A pipeline has been rerouted to avoid sage grouse habitat. Multiple wells are drilled off of single pads, meaning fewer well pads. Contaminants are piped away from well sites, the water cleaned and recycled.

EnCana Oil and Gas (USA) has touted its North Parachute Ranch area as a demonstration of how gas drilling can be done responsibly, minimizing the impact on the environment. The company owns the 45,000-acre property. It was formerly the heart of Union Oil of California's oil shale operation. Now, the rugged sagebrush-covered canyons below the Bookcliffs of the Roan Plateau are becoming the centerpiece of EnCana's operations in the gas-rich Piceance Basin.

By owning the property, EnCana officials say, it allows them more flexibility to try techniques that are softer on the environment and on the bottom line.

The initial costs are high, said Doug Rosa, field operations leader of EnCana's northern Piceance operations, but over time, the techniques save the company money on such a large-scale operation. The site also helps develop new technology, Rosa said, so it can be used elsewhere in EnCana's operations. "We had an opportunity because we own the surface," said EnCana spokesman Doug Hock. "We were able to do some unique things, both in terms of best management practices, but also in terms of wildlife. It's a sensitive area. We're also drilling adjacent to the Roan."

The North Parachute Ranch site also helps polish the company's image. Officials have shown it off to environmentalists, sportsmen, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., and former Bureau of Land Management Director Gail Norton. Last month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission awarded the company a pair of outstanding operator awards for its work there with sage grouse and its collection system.

Hock said some of the techniques EnCana is using at North Parachute Ranch could also be put in place if the top of the controversial Roan Plateau is opened to drill rigs, meaning less scarring on the surface, which environmentalists and nearby communities have urged should be kept free of drilling.

But some environmentalists worry the innovations don't go far enough.

"The impact they have on the local scenery is going to be permanent. Nobody is ever going to convince me that when they're done, all the road building and dirt moving that they're doing is ever going to be brought back to normal," said Duke Cox, of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, an organization of area residents critical of the gas industry. Cox has toured the North Parachute Ranch site.

"We want them to do everything they can (to lessen their impact)," he said, "but I have a hard time getting too enthused and waving the flag too highly, because I know that almost everything they do, if you look at it and examine it, it's because of cost savings on their part."

EnCana plans 100-120 wells on the property this year, nearly half the 250 wells it plans in the Piceance Basin. In upcoming years, it will become a bigger focus of the company's operations, Hock said, with some 1,400 wells planned over the 20-year life of the project.

The company has earned a bad reputation locally for its environmental impacts after a faulty well released gas into West Divide Creek near Silt. The accident resulted in the largest fine ever imposed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and came on top of numerous run-ins with nearby residents who complained about industry impacts on the landscape.

Since then, the company has pledged to clean up its act. This year, it's slated to receive just one violation notice for noise levels from a compressor station.

One of the most significant techniques EnCana is using at the site gathers gas, foul water and oil in a single line and pipes it to a central facility. The gas is collected. The oil is separated and saved. The water is cleaned and recycled, used again in the hydraulic fracturing process that breaks up the rock layers to make it easier for the gas to flow. Usually, that requires truckloads of water rumbling up dusty roads. Rosa estimates 16,000 truck trips have been saved over two years.

The system also means no air emissions from tanks of gas byproducts sitting by well sites.

Cox praised the technique and said it should be used elsewhere.

"Every well should have a closed-loop system. Every well that's drilled in a residential area should be a state-of-the-art well," he said.

That's not so easy, Hock said. The system works at North Parachute Ranch because the company owns the land, and its narrow canyons are conducive to pipelines linking each well to the central facility. It would be harder on private land, he said, negotiating rights-of-way with multiple landowners and calculating royalties to multiple mineral rights oils owners.

The North Parachute Ranch site also takes directional drilling techniques to a higher level, using single well pads to reach several wells, often burrowing under steep mountains. EnCana has drilled as many as eight wells from a single pad, with plans for 12 next year and designs for 24. Another major gas company in Garfield County, Williams, has pads with 22 wells already in place.

The two companies are also using a new process where wells sharing the same pad can be drilled and completed simultaneously, meaning a quicker end to drilling activities. One 4,100-foot directional well is the longest in the gas-rich Piceance Basin.

It's a technique environmentalists have urged EnCana pursue at the Roan Plateau, reaching the gas from the bottom, where gas drilling has been intense, rather than drilling on the well-free top.

"The technology that they're so high on is certainly going to make it more likely that they can get to the gas underneath the Roan Plateau without drilling on top," Cox said.

But drilling directionally under the Roan could mean up to 10 miles of drilling, Rosa said. Even the 4,100-foot well might not be economically feasible, he said. Even from the valley floor, wells are already drilling up to two miles underground to reach the gas.

EnCana has been working with the Division of Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management at the site to study possible impacts on species like deer, elk, sage grouse and cutthroat trout. It's also taking constant air quality monitoring samples. Pollutant levels have never exceeded federal clean air standards, said EnCana spokeswoman Kathy Friesen.

The North Parachute Ranch gives EnCana a chance to put cutting-edge techniques in place, Friesen said, "and show that development can be done responsibly."