BIG PINEY – John Filiatrault, Denbury Resources’ vice president of carbon dioxide (CO2) supply and pipeline operations, opened the community meeting Monday with the answer to the question on everyone’s mind.
“Denbury will not build a CO2 sweetening plant on section 16,” he said to roaring applause.
Perhaps he was hopeful it would cut the meeting short or ease other pressing questions – it did neither – or perhaps he wanted to get the biggest question out of the way first.
On his words, the crowd that nearly packed the Fine Arts Building in Big Piney – there were only a handful of empty seats – erupted with cheers. But no one got up and left, and people weren’t shy about asking pointed, uncomfortable questions – to which answers almost always started with, “That’s a good question.”
The community meeting became a necessity after news Denbury was considering an area near the cemetery off Calpet Road for a sweetening plant and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) injection well. The site is between one and two miles from town and the Big Piney school campus, which is home to hundreds of children during the school day.
According to the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration, H2S can be dangerous or even lethal at high concentrations – even low concentrations can cause significant health issues. Any leak, it was feared, could imperil the local population.
While Denbury had made no actual plans for a plant at the site, the mere fact it was amongst those being considered caused a flurry of outrage. Town council meetings, school board meetings, even cemetery board meetings, revolved around this topic.
Filiatrault said Denbury realized it had made a mistake in not engaging the public earlier and set up Monday’s informational meeting to create a basis for community dialog on this topic, as well as others in the future.
Denbury still needs a sweetening plant and injection well, though, regardless of where it is located. Unlike Cimarex, the company Denbury purchased the Riley Ridge facility from, Denbury is primarily focused on tertiary production, or CO2 enhanced oil recovery (EOR). In this process, CO2 is reinjected into depleted fields. The oil or gas is pushed up by the pressure from the injection and collected. The CO2 remains in the ground – a side benefit for the environment.
Cimarex’s plan was to sell the methane and helium produced from its wells and reinject the CO2 and H2S to stabilize the formation’s pressure. Denbury hopes to ship the CO2 to other areas as part of this CO2 EOR process. To do this, the H2S must be separated from the CO2, which would occur at the sweetening plant, so called because it removes the sour gas from the desired substance.
The CO2 would be piped out of the region, and the H2S would be injected back into the ground at the plant site. As one audience member pointed out, it would be done in much the same fashion as ExxonMobil handles its CO2 and H2S in the Schute Creek plant – an operation with a nearly flawless safety rating, the speaker added.
But Schute Creek is isolated, community member Melissa Bowman said.
“Whitney Canyon is in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “Schute Creek is in the middle of nowhere. And they’re in the middle of nowhere for a reason. Why would you consider building near a town that’s on flat ground where the wind blows all the time?”
And that, despite Filiatrault’s announcement at the outset, was the main question of the evening.
Very few questioned Denbury’s need for a sweetening plant, and many expressed hopes it would still be in Sublette County – adding to Denbury’s existing county taxes of around $300,000. Big Piney and Marbleton understand the gift of money that oil and gas can give and also take away. No one in the auditorium was arguing against energy exploration. But no one seemed to be able to contemplate a H2S injection site that close to a large population.
Denbury said the site by the cemetery was originally thought of as a possibility because it was close to power, had easy access and would have little surface damage. It was only one of many sites under consideration, but it stole the headlines and the attention of the public.
When the Riley Ridge facility goes online, expected in mid-2013, Denbury will continue with Cimarex’s plan to reinject the CO2 and H2S at the drill site on the hill. Facility manger Mike Liebelt said it was better for the formation if the H2S wasn’t reinjected at the exact site it was removed from, although he noted it should be returned to the same formation.
“We’re producing gas out of the Riley Ridge unit, and we don’t want to inject our gas where we’re producing,” he said. “We want it in the same formation, but not the same location.”
Leibelts and Filiatrault’s confidence did nothing to dispel concern or skepticism within the audience. Ranchers Bill Barney and Tim Thompson wanted to know what safety procedures were in place for when problems occur and how any people in the area will be notified.
Sublette County Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Mitchell said Denbury has an Environmental Protection Agency Risk Management Plan (EPA-RMP) on file in his office. Mitchell is also notified immediately of any leak at the existing facility.
The EPA-RMP dictates how the company and local team will react to any releases, Mitchell explained, as well as how to communicate with the community to keep it safe.
Thompson was concerned for those recreating or working in the area, those for whom an email or phone call wouldn’t mean much in the wilderness. Liebelt said, at minimum, the facility would have a light and sound alarm to notify those in the area, although he noted it was difficult for the public to access the area around the Riley Ridge facility.
No one was appeased, and a number of Big Piney High School students approached to press Denbury representatives on the “what ifs” – what would happen to the ecosystem if there was a leak? What would you do to keep the community safe if there was a leak?
While it wasn’t technically the last word of the evening, the “having the last word” award went to high school junior Dakota Schell, whose line of questioning started with, “What other successful sweetening plants do you have in the area?”
The answer was none.
“Do you have other plants like this?”
“Have you ever done something like this?”
“How can you say something won’t go wrong if this hasn’t been done before?”
Filiatrault, for the first time, acknowledged accidents could happen.
“We’re working on mitigation to ensure it doesn’t,” he said of something going wrong. “We’re trying to get out in front and mitigate any risk possible.”
The future of any sweetening plant is several years out. In the future, Denbury promised to include the public more and earlier in the process. The company is still gathering possible sites. Further stages will involve public meetings and input, Filiatrault said.