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Study finds soil to be used to reclaim gas fields holds nutrients longer than expected

Potted soil and grass growing inside a greenhouse.
Michael Curran
Image showing the layout of the study design within a greenhouse at the University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station.

Southwest Wyoming has great dirt. That is, if you’re restoring the land in natural gas fields, according to new research.

To drill for natural gas, you need well pads. And to build those, you have to disturb the land. Typically, the soil is left nearby in something called a soil stockpile, waiting to be used when the land is ready to be restored.

“But there's not really been anything to see how long soil stockpiles can support vegetation growth,” said Michael Curran, who co-authored the soil stockpile research.

Curran specifically studied southwest Wyoming’s Jonah Field near Pinedale – one of the top producing natural gas fields in the country. But the area also has some of the harshest weather in the country.

“Keep in mind that the Jonah Field gets four to seven inches of precipitation and 39 to 50 frost free days a year,” Curran said.

And he wondered: Do the nutrients in the soil needed to regrow native plants deteriorate due to time and harsh weather? It turns out, the answer is no.

“It's just kind of like refrigerating the soil for a while and then you respread it and it comes right back,” Curran said.

He found the soil can sit around for at least seven years and still support the same quality of plant life.

“You don't really have to be in a rush to move this soil and get reclamation started right away, if you think there's the possibility of expanding this pad,” Curran said.

Today, thanks to newer technology that allows for horizontal drilling, developers centralize their operations.

“Instead of having, you know, five five-acre pads, with one well on each one of them,” Curran said, “they may have one pad with a larger overall footprint with multiple wells, but that reduces the roads and the pipelines and all the stuff that connects all of them.”

Curran said because of the possibility of expanding well pads, it’s not always known when development might be complete and reclamation can begin. He added knowing there’s a longer shelf life on the health and quality of the soil gives operators more flexibility.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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