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Technology keeps Colorado oil flowing

Danny Jackson gets ready to inject carbon dioxide into Colorado's Rangely Weber oil field.
Danny Jackson gets ready to inject carbon dioxide into Colorado's Rangely Weber oil field.
Jacob Pritchard, Associated Press

RANGELY, Colo. — The huge oil field virtually in her back yard reminds Peggy Rector of the mechanical bunny that pitches batteries in TV ads.

"That field just keeps going and going and going," said Rector, who owns the Silver Sage RV Park.

She moved to this western Colorado town — closer to Salt Lake City than Denver — in 1962 and has watched the Rangely Weber oil field, a mile away, become a giant in Rocky Mountain energy.

The 45-square-mile field first produced oil in 1933 and, like any 72-year-old, it's starting to slow down. But a modern recovery technique — pumping carbon dioxide into nearly depleted reservoirs to push oil to the surface — is helping Chevron USA Inc. keep the oil flowing. In the process, it's also maintaining Rangely's tenuous hold on economic survival.

The field's total lifetime production of 860 million barrels would be enough to run Colorado's sole refinery — the Suncor unit in Commerce City, Colo., a few miles northwest of Denver — for 26 years.

Yet tucked away in the far reaches of rural northwest Colorado, the Weber field never has attracted the attention it deserves as the biggest-producing oil discovery in Rocky Mountain history.

"It's a world-class field," said Brian Macke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The field has maintained a low profile, Macke said, in part because the property has coexisted peacefully with its nearby landowners, unlike Colorado's newer drilling ventures, many of which are characterized by public disputes.

"Because of where it's located, away from large population centers, and because of the environmentally friendly manner in which it's operated, it hasn't attracted a lot of attention," Macke said.

That's fine with the people of Rangely, as long as the field continues to produce and keeps the work force of about 150 in place. Aside from a nearby coal mine that employs 164, the town's only other major job producer is Colorado Northwestern Community College, with about 60 jobs.

For years, townsfolk and oil professionals alike have been predicting the demise of the Weber field. Its production peaked in 1956 at 82,000 barrels a day and has been steadily declining ever since.

But the rate of decline has been arrested twice — once in the 1950s when Chevron began flooding the underground reservoirs with water to push oil toward collection wells, and more recently when carbon dioxide was used in place of water.

While its current production of 14,000 barrels a day is just a fraction of peak output, Chevron has been able to keep the rate fairly steady in recent years.

"If you'd have asked us what the life of the field was when we began water flooding, we'd have said 30 years," said Chevron reservoir engineer Ronald Wackowski. "Now we're still saying 30 years."

Unfortunately for oil-hungry Colorado consumers, all the Rangely output goes to a Chevron refinery in Salt Lake City. There it is made into gasoline and other fuels for Utah and states in the Northwest.

But Rangely residents are happy the field is still pumping.

"Rangely was built on the Weber oil field. That's the whole reason Rangely is here," said Jeff Devere, economic development director for the town. "This community operates on that oil discovery to a great extent, and we just hope it keeps on going."