By Burt Hubbard
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS
More than one million people and a half-million homes are located in Colorado’s high fire danger red zones. Also nestled among the red zone forests are more than 2,000 active gas and oil wells.
This year’s devastating wildfires have already prompted one of the state’s largest energy companies to temporarily shut down more than 500 wells and evacuate a gas processing facility.
However, both energy company and state oversight officials said there are procedures in place to react quickly to fires near oil and gas wells, as well as to prevent drilling and pumping operations from accidentally sparking fires.
Wells or rigs burning from wildfires or causing wildfires are rare events, officials said.
“I have never heard of it,” said Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana Corp., a major gas producer in Colorado. “That’s not to say it’s never happened. I know it’s never happened for Encana.”
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS digitally mapped how many wells were located in red zones as of June 14th. The map showed there were 2,034 active oil and gas wells, primarily in two counties.
Two thirds of the wells, 1,490, are in Garfield County, the scene of two 400-acre fires earlier this month. Another 429 wells are in La Plata County, about 60 miles west of the vast West Fork fire.
There were also 56 wells in red zones in Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, and 30 in Montezuma County. Thousands of other wells are located near fire-prone areas in northwest Colorado that are not considered red zones because so few people live there.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said well operators are “diligent” about shutting down wells during wildfires.
“Operators recognize the need to protect public safety in this regard as well as to provide for the protection of their own assets,” Hartman said.
Energy companies have had to contend with several fires so far this summer.
Hock said Encana shut down 32 wells in June for several days during the two fires near Rifle in Garfield County.
Later that same month, the company shut down more than 500 wells for several days and temporarily evacuated a small gas processing plant in Rio Blanco County during the fast-moving Wild Rose fire that eventually burned more than 1,000 acres, Hock said.
Fire can ignite natural gas from wells in a way similar to a gas explosion in a home, he said. Encana has the capacity to shut down wells remotely from facilities in the town of Parachute or from Denver.
During the disastrous 2002 fire season, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a directive to all oil and gas operators placing restrictions on open flames, smoking and flaring of gas at wells to guard against operations causing wildfires.
Dan Randolph, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group, said potential fires sparked by well operations remain a concern in La Plata County.
“You have a lot of traffic going into these areas and you have a lot of heavy machinery, so there is a likelihood of an inadvertent spark,” Randolph said.
County commissioners earlier this month permitted gas flaring at wells only with the approval of fire officials as part of overall countywide fire restrictions due to dry conditions.
But energy companies said they take precaution to lower the risks of wildfires igniting wells or drilling rigs, officials said. Hock said companies clear an area of about an acre around each well to remove combustible materials.
And John Hutchins, Rio Blanco county emergency manager, said the roads built by energy companies in the sparsely populated county can serve as fire breaks and access for firefighters. “It kind of helps in a lot of ways,” he said.
Rio Blanco County Sheriff Si Woodruff said he couldn’t recall a well ever being consumed by wildfire. And he said if such an event did occur, county firefighters and oil company officials would probably just let it burn rather than put responders in danger.
“We would just go park a mile away and watch it burn and the oil company’s representative would be standing there, saying, ‘Let it burn.’”