The first commercial gas well in the Basin was located near Aztec, New Mexico, in 1921. That same year, large amounts of gas were discovered at Ute Dome near the New Mexico-Colorado state line. It is Ute Dome that is important to the early history of natural gas in Durango and La Plata County. In 1929 natural gas was first piped into Durango from the Ute Dome through a 6-inch pipe along a 34-mile route. By the fall of that year customers in Durango were connected to the system and residents and industries like the smelter began to switch to natural gas from coal.
Natural gas posed a serious economic threat to the coal industry and local workers. The gas was being piped in from out of state, taking money out of La Plata County workers' pockets. Large users of coal also began to switch to natural gas. Fort Lewis Agricultural School switched to natural gas in May 1930 when a three-mile extension from the main pipeline was constructed to the school, which was south of Hesperus then.
Durango's high school and junior high had converted to gas by 1930. The coal producers met with school board members that year to persuade them to return to coal. They argued that with the depression, unemployment was high. By returning to coal, they would help coal workers by creating jobs and boosting the local economy.
In 1932, the Durango Natural Gas Company first approached the power plant in Durango to switch over to natural gas. It was not until a number of years later, however, that the power plant made the conversion.
The coal producers had a point at this difficult time during the Depression. Local coal mines provided jobs and money that remained in the community, and there were very few, if any, conventional gas wells drilled in La Plata County during the 1930s and 1940s. There simply was not the market or the pipelines to distribute natural gas in the region.
The Durango power plant switched to natural gas in 1946 and quickly became a large consumer. This put a strain on the gas supply for Durango and concerns arose with keeping the power plant operating and keeping residents warm in the winter. With discoveries of natural gas in the 1940s at Barker Dome, also in New Mexico, the supply of natural gas from Ute Dome and Barker Dome wells kept the lights on and residents warm through the early 1950s.
The 1950s brought widespread natural gas exploration and development in both Colorado and New Mexico. Thousands of wells were drilled throughout the Basin, and pipelines were constructed to ship the gas to growing populations in California and other parts of the Southwest. There was now a large-scale market for natural gas, and the San Juan Basin saw an explosion of gas drilling activity.
For La Plata County, however, the real boom in exploration and drilling would come in the mid-1980s with the development of coalbed methane wells. Historically, local miners knew methane gas was present in the coal seams. Local coal miners encountered methane in several mines, one being in the former Tendrick Mine 10 miles northeast of Bayfield in 1924.
It was not until 1948, however, that several wells were drilled into coal-bearing formations to produce methane. But it was still uneconomical to produce methane from these wells. Passage of the Crude Oil Windfall Profits Tax Act of 1980 made it desirable to drill wells to produce "unconventional" coalbed methane gas.
Since this legislation, the focus of natural gas development in the San Juan Basin and La Plata County has been on coalbed methane gas. The issues of gas wells and drilling in La Plata County are fairly recent when compared to gas development as a whole throughout the Basin. For the first 50 years, Durango and La Plata County had to rely on natural gas from the New Mexico side of the Basin. Large-scale development of natural gas in La Plata County is fairly recent, but it will be a dominant economic and environmental issue for many years to come.
Nik Kendziorski received his B.A. degree in history from Kalamazoo College in Michigan and his M.A. degree in American Studies from the University of Wyoming. A Western historian who consults on properties for the National Register of Historic Places, Nik has supervised three historic properties for the San Diego Historical Society, and in Hawaii he supervised high school students on special visits to the sacred island Kahoolawe. An avid skier, hiker, and historical interpreter, Nik is thoroughly familiar with the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the newly designated Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. He lives near Durango with his wife Amy, an assistant principal, and his son Andrew.