Natural-gas company offers green approach

WPX Energy planning 570 wells to drain area known as Middle Mesa

Ken McQueen, with WPX Energy, talks to The Durango Herald editorial board about the future natural-gas drilling technology that his company would use in the Middle Mesa area in New Mexico, south of Allison. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Ken McQueen, with WPX Energy, talks to The Durango Herald editorial board about the future natural-gas drilling technology that his company would use in the Middle Mesa area in New Mexico, south of Allison.

The development of natural gas on 5,700 acres just south of the New Mexico line between the Pine and the San Juan rivers will be done with the environment in mind, WPX Energy officials told The Durango Herald editorial board Thursday.

Ken McQueen said the extraction of natural gas from the Mancos Shale formation in the area known as Middle Mesa will be drilled with a natural gas-powered rig instead of diesel. The result will be fewer emissions and less noise.

Environmentalists, however, remain concerned.

Mike Eisenfeld, who represents the San Juan Citizen Alliance in New Mexico, said WPX has not done a thorough environmental analysis.

“The area is hammered with natural-gas production already,” Eisenfeld said. “They’ve surrounded Navajo State Park with gas wells.”

All of Middle Mesa, across the state border from Allison, is territory belonging to the Bureau of Land Management. The agency expects to receive the first WPX Energy environmental assessment for Middle Mesa work within 30 to 45 days. The document would be disseminated for 30 days of public comment.

Draining Middle Mesa of its natural gas through vertical or directional drilling would require 570 wells, creating about 2,850 acres of disturbed surface area, McQueen said. Work could last 43 years.

McQueen was accompanied by WPX colleagues Susan Alvillar, community affairs representative; Larry Higgins, permit supervisor; Heather Riley, senior regulatory specialist; and Maureen Joe and Dave Mankiewicz from the BLM.

The Middle Mesa project will be done by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, McQueen said. The approach, which involves drilling straight down and then horizontally, allows access to more natural fractures, he said. The advantage, company officials have said, is that it produces the most gas with the least surface disturbance.

The most current price for natural gas – $2.08 per million British thermal units – isn’t encouraging, McQueen said.

A month ago, WPX Energy said it was postponing the Middle Mesa project in favor of more lucrative holdings elsewhere in Colorado and other parts of the country.

At that time, the average price for natural gas was $2.50 per mBtu, down from $3.80 per mBtu a year ago.

“But we continue to move forward on the Middle Mesa project,” Alvillar said. “This is an important story.”

WPX Energy, the independent exploration and production arm of Williams since a corporate split in January, will be able to work the Middle Mesa formation year-round through a modified seasonal closure that protects wintering mule deer.

Eight drilling pads would be required, taking up 40 acres total, he said.

A customized drilling rig will be mounted on tracks, allowing it to open multiple wells per location, McQueen said. No longer will crews have to disassemble the rig and move it.

Hydraulic fracturing, breaking into gas pockets and injecting water and chemicals under high pressure, will use produced water from other WPX operations. The produced water will be piped to Middle Mesa.

Two holding ponds for the water will serve the entire operation. Each drilling site will not require its own water source.

To control emissions, none of the methane produced from the formation will be vented or flared.

In order to reduce highway traffic, drilling crews – one day shift, one night shift – will be bused to and from the work site, McQueen said.

San Juan Citizens Alliance is concerned about cumulative air-quality impact resulting from the work and wants to know more about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, Eisenfeld said.

The project requires a full-blown environmental impact statement, Eisenfeld said. Site-specific environmental assessments don’t get it, he said.

As for horizontal drilling technology in general, McQueen thinks it is here to stay. In 2001, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission didn’t approve a single permit for horizontal drilling, he said. In 2011, the agency approved 806 permits for such operations, 19 percent of the total number of drilling permits issued.

In 2011, the commission approved 2,576 permits for directional drilling and 883 permits for vertical drilling.

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