Bombing range oil bonanza or land mine?

Critics say plan to drill for oil on Lowry Bombing Range fraught with problems. Proponents counter there are few if any risks

February 9, 2012

AURORA | A plan to drill for oil on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range has some state lawmakers from Aurora on edge.

But officials from the Colorado State Land Board insist that the project will comply with the highest public safety standards.

The Colorado State Land Board signed preliminary agreements with Texas-based ConocoPhillips about two weeks ago and made a recommendation in favor of the agreement to the five board members on Feb. 3, said Bill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado State Land Board. The board members tabled a formal decision until their next board meeting in March.

The Colorado State Land Board owns mineral rights to a portion of land within the former Lowry Bombing Range. The contract with ConocoPhillips would mean that Conoco would pay the Land Board about $137 million over a period of five years to drill on the property, Ryan said. That works out to about $6,500 per acre. The Land Board would also receive a 20 percent royalty payment for any oil realized. Part of the profits earned by the Land Board will go toward K-12 public education in the state.

Ryan said ConocoPhillips would likely use hydraulic fracturing, the oil drilling technique that has been mired in controversy as of late.  But the drilling project would follow all safety requirements as denoted by state and local regulations, he said.

“Everything Conoco does out there will be governed by our lease, which in many cases exceeds COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) regulations,” Ryan said.

But state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, is concerned that drilling on the property, in southeast Aurora, would pose a threat to nearby residents.

“If not done exactly right, this could be dangerous,” Carroll said. There are risks of chemical contamination, potential gas leaks in ground water and traffic congestion, she said.

“It’s too close to a major residential area and the property contains depleted uranium, unexploded munitions and a Superfund site,” she said.

The Lowry Landfill is on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s list of Superfund, or hazardous waste sites.

Carroll sent the Aurora Sentinel a press release from CDPHE from 1999 that states that four ammunition rounds were found during a radiation survey at the bombing range. The release also said two of the projectiles found contained depleted uranium, although none of them contained explosive material.

The projectiles containing depleted uranium were part of a research program conducted between 1983 and 1987 by the Denver Research Institute for the Department of Defense, according to the release. Depleted uranium is only 40 percent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium ore and, like lead, is also chemically toxic, according to the release.

But Ryan said the munitions are nothing to worry about and he disputes that there is any depleted uranium on the property where Conoco would be drilling.

Carroll and other local residents, including members of an Aurora-based anti-fracking group, have expressed their concern over the last few months about the safety hazards associated with drilling on the former bombing range.

Ryan says they’re misinformed.

“I think folks who don’t want to bother to understand this think that it’s a giant minefield or something, and that’s not it,” he said. “The Land Board property has been extensively mitigated.”