Western History & Genealogy Blog

Project Rulison or: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Natural Gas.

Rocky Mountain News, 11 November 1969, P. 1, 6
Denver Post, 16 December 1971, P. 28

From A-Bombs to Fracking in Mining

On September 10, 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), in order to release natural gas deposits locked underground, exploded a 40-kiloton atomic bomb on Colorado’s Western Slope in what it called "Project Rulison." The AEC and its civilian partner Austral Oil Company assured the public of both the project’s safety and profitability. And the explosion did succeed in releasing large amounts of natural gas, increasing production rapidly. The blast was so successful that more blasts took place near Meeker and elsewhere in the West. In fact, in the above article, “Decade of A-Blasts Forecast,” industry representatives and experts from the AEC are quoted as telling Governor John Love’s task force that beginning in 1972, the atomic bomb could be employed in gas production “as often as 40 times per day." Yet Austral Oil Company never did make a profit on Project Rulison and the A-bomb did not turn into the mining wave of the future. It turns out the natural gas harvested was too radioactive for public use. The Project Rulison blast site was sealed, and no one thought anymore of it… until 2009 when Noble Energy decided they wanted to drill for gas around the blast site and the Garfield County commissioners protested (“Rifle Drilling Advances,” Denver Post, 12-25-2009).

For more information on Project Rulison, come to Western History and Genealogy and check out our Newspaper Clippings files, or find information on Project Rulison using our Western History Subject Index.. For other papers related to Atomic Energy Commission or Oil and Gas companies in Colorado, check out the many wonderful archives that we house in our collection.  

You know, I frequently hear

You know, I frequently hear this strange comment "It turns out the natural gas harvested was too radioactive for public use" but as a resident of Rifle, a few miles west of Rulison and a few miles south of the later Rio Blanco blasts, this is not the way I remember it. I remember us *ALL* knowing that the gas would be radioactive even before they shot off the nuclear blast. I also don't remember it being ever considered successful. Now all I need to do is find a few articles to back up my memories. It was fun, however, to have the AEC bring an exhibit to the Fairgrounds that my brother and his best friend Charley were allowed to operate. It showed how nuclear workers used robotic arms to handle radioactive material, and they got to operate the arms. I scanned a filthy slide of the blast that my dad probably took and I uploaded it to my Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlcrook/3325083046/ All you can see is dust. Good sites about the blast are: http://www.em.doe.gov/bemr/BEMRSites/prbs.aspx
and this PDF: https://www.osti.gov/opennet/reports/plowshar.pdf Rio Blanco was more fun because we were sent out of Rifle High School on the beautiful May day of the blast, where we sat on the lawn waiting for a possible earthquake, which wasn't much of a quake, but at least it got us out of accounting.

Hi Jude, Although I grew up

Hi Jude,

Although I grew up in Grand Junction, not too far from the blast site, I'm too young to remember it. I'm sure that the locals did figure the gas would be radioactive. What's interesting to me here is how long the government and the gas drilling companies persisted in their belief that the gas would be useable. Some very interesting and helpful links you posted. Thank you for your comment.