A late-1960s Atomic Energy Commission plan to extract Wyoming natural gas with five underground nuclear explosions won strong initial support from the oil and gas industry and the federal government. Finally, however, the idea stalled, thanks to the emergence of more information on possible dangers, to Washington politics, and especially to intense local opposition in Sublette County, Wyo., where the devices were slated to be detonated.
El Paso’s project became part of a joint effort between private industry and the United States Government as part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Plowshare Program, a project after World War II to help the United States develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses. By the early 1960s, the AEC had approved four nuclear detonations around the West to help extract natural gas.
The first explosion was detonated December 10, 1967 near Farmington in northwestern New Mexico. Operation Gasbuggy, as it was called, was a joint effort of the AEC, the U.S. Department of the Interior and El Paso Natural Gas.
A second nuclear device, this time 40 kilotons, was tested on September 10, 1969, near Rulison, Colorado. Despite public protest and lawsuits filed by environmental groups to stop the nuclear detonation, Project Rulison was set off at Rifle, Colorado. A third nuclear experiment, Project Rio Blanco, also near Rifle, was detonated in May 1973. This project set off three separate 30-kiloton devices simultaneously at depths ranging from 5,838 to 6,690 feet in the same bore hole.
In those same years, another experimental site was being explored. In 1968, El Paso Gas Co. signed a contract with the AEC to study the feasibility of exploding a nuclear device 19 miles south-southeast of Pinedale, 18 miles east-northeast of Big Piney and Marbleton, Wyo., and 10 miles south of Boulder, Wyo. on Bureau of Land Management property leased to the company. Known as Project Wagon Wheel, it, like Operation Gasbuggy, was designed as an experiment to study the effectiveness of nuclear power to extract natural gas.