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January 12, 2008 - 2:57PM

MONUMENT - On the gentle, wooded slopes of Mount Herman in Pike National Forest west of Monument, one can almost forget about the suburban sprawl butting up against the trees or the distant rumbling of traffic on Interstate 25.

 

It’s an area just minutes from the highway, popular with hikers, bicyclists and the many new residents who have flocked here to live in nature’s splendor.

This could be where Colorado’s next energy boom begins.

 

Or it could be just another in a long string of fruitless efforts to pull something valuable out of El Paso County’s ground.

After years of delays, a Texas energy company may soon find out.

 

Federal officials will decide this spring on a request by Dyad Petroleum Co. of Midland, Texas, to drill two exploratory natural gas wells, the first exploration in Pike National Forest since the 1950s and the first drilling in the county in more than 15 years.

 

The industry will be watching the effort closely. The same rock formations exist all along the Front Range, and if gas is found, experts say, the region could see the kind of production that is transforming much of the state.

 

Because Dyad owns oil and gas rights to 21,000 acres in the Pike National Forest, Mount Herman could be ground zero.

 

“If they find something, it’s not just going to be here. It’s going to be about the entire Front Range,” said Chris Tirpak, president of Friends of Monument Preserve, a group opposed to drilling. “If they find it, they’re going to be looking all the way up Rampart Range to Denver and all the way up to Fort Collins and Cheyenne.”

 

The company asked the U.S. Forest Service for approval in 2002. It wants to drill on two sites, one a quarter-mile south of the Red Rock Ranch subdivision west of Monument and the other off Mount Herman Road, a quarter-mile north of Beaver Creek.

 

The company wants approval to bulldoze 4.5 acres on both sites and set up 90-foothigh drilling rigs that would run for about two months. Some roads would have to be built to accommodate heavy truck traffic.

 

After an initial public comment period in 2002, during which 17 comments were received, most voicing concerns with the proposal, little progress was made until recently.

 

Jeff Hovermale, forestry technician for Pike National Forest, said Dyad opted not to hire a contractor to do an environmental assessment, leaving the work to the U.S. Forest Service, which led to the delay.

 

“For a period of about three years after the Hayman fire, all our specialists were working on the seeding of the burn area. We did not have adequate staffing,” Hovermale said.

 

Officials have nearly completed the assessment and expect to release it in March or April. It will include a recommendation on accepting or denying the proposal.

 

A 30-day public comment period will follow, and officials will then make their decision. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which regulates mineral rights on federal land, would issue any permits, which could take another few weeks.

 

“We knew when we got into it, it was going take the Forest Service and BLM quite a while to complete their studies,” said Dyad President Tom Dyches.

If a permit is issued by early June, he said drilling could begin in the fall.

 

Although experts disagree about how successful the drilling would be — or if it would find anything — other gas and oil companies will keep close tabs on it.

 

Since Dyad sought approval to drill and bought leasing rights to 21,000 acres — at about $2.50 an acre, as required under federal law — a full-scale gas production boom has swept Colorado.

 

Thanks to new technology, energy companies can tap Colorado gas deposits once thought untouchable. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 2007 saw a record 6,425 approved drilling permits, more than twice the 2,915 permits in 2004.

 

Western Slope communities such as Rifle, Parachute and Grand Junction are expanding rapidly, the surrounding hills and valleys becoming patchworks of well pads. The prospect of opening the Roan Plateau near Rifle to drilling has become a national environmental battle.

 

The Pikes Peak region has been untouched by this or the many past oil and gas booms to hit Colorado. Despite at least 104 attempts in the past century, nobody has managed to make a profit out of drilling in El Paso County, according to Oil and Gas Conservation Commission records.

 

Nevertheless, the area has tempted speculators, including Vince Matthews, the state geologist and director of the Colorado Geological Survey who, working in the gas industry, drilled here in the 1980s.

 

“I spent a lot of money trying to figure out how to drill in El Paso County,” Matthews said.

 

Some efforts found a little — “enough to make you do something stupid and spend some money,” Matthews said — but none became producing wells.

 

Natural gas requires organic shales trapped in porous sandstone, below an impenetrable layer of rock to trap it, he said. Although the conditions exist on the northern Front Range, the area from Boulder south through El Paso County has been considered too shallow.

 

Although some in the industry think conditions at the Mount Herman sites are right for finding gas, many experts say the chance of Dyad finding gas is remote.

 

This type of exploration is known as “wildcat drilling,” meaning no proven gas reserves exist.

 

“The chances of that becoming another basin development are pretty slim,” said Ernie Gillingham, surface reclamation specialist with the BLM in Cañon City. “It’s just not a proven basin. Way over 90 percent of wildcat wells are plugged and abandoned.”

Despite predictions Dyad’s drilling will come up dry, some in Monument are concerned.

 

If approved, the bulldozing of the plot near the Red Rock Ranch subdivision will be just a few hundred yards from some homes, and the company could bulldoze the second plot. Hovermale said, though, that if Dyad finds nothing at the first site, it will probably not drill at the second.

 

For Tirpak, of the Friends of Monument Preserve, that is bad enough. But he worries what will happen if the company finds something.

 

He worries about dense well pads, about new roads clogged with heavy truck traffic, about noise from rigs and its impact on wildlife and the destruction of trails.

 

“Do we want to have this whole place wind up looking like Rifle? Looking like Parachute?” he said.

 

“People all up and down the Front Range from here to Boulder need to realize their backyards are the national forest,” he said. “If it starts here on the Front Range, where will it stop on the Front Range?

“We’re hoping they don’t find anything.”

 

Dyches, the Dyad president, said the area will be restored if no gas is found. The company is planning directional drilling to bore under Mount Herman to limit the impact.

 

The company has spent $250,000 on the project, including leasing the 21,000 acres, and he thinks gas is there.

 

“It’s a high-risk well, but it’s worth testing,” Dyches said. “If there are reserves there, they could possibly be quite large.”

Matthews, the state geologist, is skeptical.

 

“I think western El Paso County is not really prospective — but I’ve been wrong before, and oil and gas have been found in some pretty strange places,” he said.

 

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It was brought to the attention of the HOA that there were a number of thefts last year of gratuities left for trash collectors, paper carriers, etc.

In order to avoid such problems it is advised that you notify the recipient by telephone ahead of time and place the item(s) closer to your front door for retrieval by that person.

As always, you should report suspicious activities to the El Paso County Sheriff's Department. The non-emergency number is (719) 390-5555.

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