The release of gases from a new exploratory carbon-dioxide well in the Pleasant View area prompted one family to leave home overnight in early June, but no one was endangered, according to a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, which did the drilling. The company reportedly put the family up in Cortez for the night while the situation was resolved.
Those most directly involved were tightlipped about the incident, which nevertheless generated abundant rumors. A member of the family did not return a phone call seeking comment.
However, according to three sources familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named, Kinder Morgan had finished drilling the well on private property near roads CC and 10 in Montezuma County and was “venting” gases as part of the process.
Two families living near the well, which was on a neighbor’s property, apparently had not been told about the venting and became concerned about the discharges and an associated smell the night of June 5. After authorities were contacted, one family evacuated to Cortez overnight, but the other stayed put.
Kinder Morgan is Montezuma County’s largest taxpayer, generating about 40 percent of the county’s property taxes. The McElmo Dome formation in Montezuma and Dolores counties contains one of the country’s largest deposits of carbon dioxide, which is piped to oil fields in Texas to help extract additional oil from played-out wells.
The Southwest Region field supervisor for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Steve Labowskie, referred questions to Todd Hartman, communications director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Labowskie did say that anyone concerned about a possible health hazard involving oil or gas well should call emergency responders first.
Hartman answered questions in an email:
“Kinder Morgan is in the process of conducting a detailed ‘reservoir test’ in a new, exploratory area of the McElmo Dome, where the company develops CO2,” he wrote.
“In recent weeks, these drilling tests resulted in the venting of CO2, including CO2 that was moving from the liquid to vapor phase. It was apparently during these reservoir tests that the venting drew concerns from local residents.
“COGCC is aware of the concern and is working with KM to modify its CO2 venting and monitoring procedure to ensure adequate precautions are taken as the company prepares to test several more exploratory wells in the area.”
The company is modifying its drilling procedures, according to Hartman, and will shut down operations when the air is calm.
“KM is taking a number of steps, including shutting down the wells when there is insufficient wind to disperse the CO2; conducting some modeling to determine how far the CO2 will travel, and looking at critical points in that process – such as residences – where KM needs to make sure it provides people the opportunity to briefly stay at another location (at KM’s expense) during testing,” he wrote.
Hartman said KM also plans to increase personnel, be more stringent about when gases are vented and stay in closer touch with local emergency responders.
Those steps include determining “where it needs to increase monitoring, and where it needs to deploy personnel to ensure people remaining in place are safe” he wrote. “The company also plans to have additional personnel in place for this work moving forward. KM is also working closely with local emergency management officials on its planning, and plans to shut down any testing should atmospheric conditions create any potential hazards. COGCC will continue to engage with KM on this matter to ensure the right measures are in place.”
Carbon dioxide is odorless, but a naturally occurring mercaptan may generate a smell, said Sara Loeffelholz, a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, via email.
Mercaptans are organic sulfur-containing compounds characterized by a strong, unpleasant odor even at very low concentrations. They are added to commercial natural gas so it can be detected if it is leaking.
Loeffelholz said the safety and welfare of people living near extraction sites has always been a top priority for KM.
“Kinder Morgan CO2 or its predecessor [Shell Western] have safely operated CO2 facilities in Montezuma County for 30 years,” she wrote. “We are committed to public safety, protection of the environment and operation of our facilities in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.
“In this particular instance, and typically during well testing activities where CO2 is properly vented into the atmosphere, it is not uncommon to detect the natural mercaptan that is contained in the CO2 produced from the Leadville Formation. Kinder Morgan follows a number of safety protocols, including dispersion modeling, to mitigate any environmental impact during these activities. If there are issues or concerns with the venting activities, operations are suspended until they are addressed. Additionally, the company works with potentially affected landowners to offer alternate housing and expenses during well testing and drilling operations.
“Kinder Morgan outperforms the industry averages in almost all safety and release related categories, and we publish our environmental, health and safety performance on our website to be transparent about our work. http://www.kindermorgan.com/ehs/.”
Asked whether anyone was endangered by this incident, Loeffelholz wrote: “No. Extensive monitoring indicated that the CO2 levels were well below OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] limits.”
She added, “Kinder Morgan regularly reviews and updates its safety protocols. This case was no different and resulted in updated procedures to increase the level of monitoring for future well testing.”
She said if someone near a Kinder Morgan well has concerns, they should call the 24- hour KM emergency number, 877-390-8640.