MARBLETON — The massive moose stood in the middle of the meandering South Piney Creek in the Wyoming Range, hidden by the colorful golds and reds of the fall foliage. Not too far away the faint tracks of the Oregon Trail could be seen.
The moose took little note of the massive, 480-ton construction crane peeking from the top of Riley Ridge more than 1,000 feet above, the site of Cimarex Energy Co.’s methane and helium gas-processing facility under construction.
And that’s precisely the idea, said Cimarex project manager Scott Stinson.
“This is the view the public has ... we’re kind of at our most exposed right now construction-wise and it’s still reasonably camouflaged,” Stinson said during a tour of the complex Thursday.
Hidden in a remote, aspen-bordered spot east of towering Darby Mountain and at nearly 9,000 feet elevation, Cimarex’s approximately $350 million Riley Ridge Methane and Helium Recovery facility will substantially increase the nation’s helium production.
The project site sits in Sublette County and lies approximately 1.5 miles east of the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary.
Cimarex officials and their partner, Air Products and Matheson Tri-Gas, broke ground on a key component of the plant Thursday afternoon, a separate helium refining facility located about 18 miles east of the plant.
The plant will take the helium gas that is separated at the Riley Ridge facility and refine the product to about 99.9 percent purity before it is trucked to market.
The Riley Ridge facility will produce as much as 400 million cubic feet of helium a year — which would be about 10 percent of the nation’s current helium production — once operations begin in 2011.
Helium is used to inflate birthday balloons, but also is a key ingredient in such technologies as rocket science, magnetic resonance imaging, the manufacture of computer chips and semi-conductors, cooling fiber optics and welding, among other uses.
Groundwork for the Cimarex plant began last year and workers began assembling equipment on the site in May, Stinson said.
Construction ramped up Aug. 1 and will continue until winter sage grouse stipulations halt work Nov. 15, he said.
Stinson said the company has taken pains to protect the views along Riley Ridge and to work with nearby landowners such as longtime rancher Dan Budd to minimize impacts to local residents.
“We’re at maximum disturbance and at our maximum worker level of about 250 people, so there’s a lot of activity up there now,” Stinson said. “But this is about as bad as it will get.“
The sour natural gas found in the Big Piney-LaBarge area of southwest Wyoming contains about half of the country’s known helium reserves.
The new plant will tap into helium reserves in the Madison formation — a proven resource for natural gas and helium — much the same way the nearby Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Shute Creek Plant does.
But while Exxon’s plant — the world’s largest helium production facility — vents carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Cimarex’s facility will reinject all the byproduct gases such as CO2 and deadly hydrogen sulfide back into the source formation.
That means the plant will have much lower emissions.
“Nothing will leave this plant except by pipeline ... we’re doing this with virtually zero emissions,” Stinson said.
Waste gases from the plant’s five producing gas wells won’t be depressurized, Stinson said. Instead, the gas will be re-injected underground as is, thus saving on energy and other costs.
The five wells are located on two well pads on both sides of the recovery facility.
Earlier this summer, contractors completed the drilling of the approximately $28 million re-injection well at a depth of about 16,500 feet.
As part of the project, a methane pipeline and a helium pipeline are also being constructed, along with a 230 KV dedicated power transmission line.
Stinson said the methane pipeline will tie into the existing Williams Co. pipeline system and move south through Calpet to the Opal Hub.
The helium line will tie into the APMTG refining plant south of Big Piney.
The company received a special-use lease from the state Board of Land Commissioners in August 2008 that paved the way for the construction of the recovery facility on a 34-acre tract of state school trust lands.
The board’s lease included a long list of conditions and stipulations, including wildlife restrictions negotiated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department designed to protect the Riley Ridge elk herd, which numbers around 200 animals.
The company also agreed to pay $1.5 million into a mitigation fund that would be tapped for habitat enhancement projects and radio-collar research efforts if the plant displaces the elk herd.
Mobil first discovered gas in the Riley Ridge area after drilling exploratory wells in the deep Madison formation in 1961.
But the produced gas contained a low heating value and high concentration of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide, which hindered the field’s development.
Stinson said the Cimarex plant is expected to have a life span of from 40 to 50 years.
Once completed, the Riley Ridge plant will employ about 28 full-time workers and the APMTG helium-refining facility will require about a dozen people.
The Riley Ridge plant is expected to play a significant role in the nation’s helium reserves because the federal government will be selling its strategic helium reserves in west Texas over the next few years.
The reserve at Bush Dome in Texas currently provides for about half the U.S market.
The government began stockpiling helium in the reserve during the days of military airships between World War I and World War II. The reserve provided helium for missiles and NASA rockets during the Cold War.
Contact Jeff Gearino at email@example.com or 307-875-5359.