It has been known for decades that helium gas is plentiful at some locations underground in the Holbrook Basin, a geologic region that includes a large part of Petrified Forest National Park. Rising prices have generated new interest in mining helium, which until now has mostly been produced as a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Helium is not just used to keep balloons aloft — it is a key ingredient in some medical and industrial applications.
Several companies are active around the park, currently exploring and/or extracting helium. One company has applied for leases from the Bureau of Land Management for mining on public lands both east and west of the park.
Another company, Rare Earth Exploration (rareearthex.com)has leased 1,877 acres of private minerals under federal surface and 2,433 acres of state lands inside the park boundary, and will develop 10 wells in all if the first two produce as they hope. They are working with the Park Service to obtain permits and environmental compliance for future drilling.
Helium wells do not take up much room — they can operate on a 150 by 150 yard footprint, and plants that extract helium from other gases (mostly nitrogen in the Holbrook Basin) are not all that much larger (one processing plant near the park is pictured above). But their operation can have various impacts on park natural resources and visitor experience. They use loud generators, have bright lights, require new roads in some cases, and generate traffic composed of heavy equipment and large tanker trucks. Fracking technology can be used, and the impact to the aquifer and surface water (should a spill take place) needs to be evaluated, avoided, and mitigated.
There are a number of conservation organizations and a teamof local residents who are following and working on this, and who are especially concerned about the dangers of fracking.
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