In the 1950s, after building up a significant nuclear arsenal, the United States started trying to figure out how to use nuclear bombs for peaceful uses. Project Plowshare (technically, Operation Plowshare) was the name for the program that sought to use atoms for peace.
There were a number of proposals, including using nuclear devices to help blast a canal across Central America; use the caverns that result from the explosions to store water in desert climates; and to extract natural gas from tight sandstone formations.
Natural Gas Extraction
There were a total of four projects using nuclear explosions to extract natural gas from tight formations:
- Project Gasbuggy: The first project, located in northwestern New Mexico, was well received by the community. Its single device was detonated December 10, 1967. (DOE Gasbuggy Fact Sheet / DOE Website)
- Project Rulison: The second project, located in western Colorado, was a single device, detonated September 10, 1969. (DOE Rulison Fact Sheet / DOE Website)
- Project Rio Blanco: The third project, also located in western Colorado, consisted of three nuclear devices, and was detonated May 17, 1973. (DOE Rio Blanco Fact Sheet / DOE Website)
- Project Wagon Wheel: The fourth project was Wagon Wheel and was planned for Sublette County, Wyoming. A groundswell of community opposition helped to stop the project. It would have sequentially detonated a total of five nuclear devices below the surface.
Learn More >>Nuclear Stimulation Primer
Project Wagon Wheel
It’s not really clear when the idea for Project Wagon Wheel originated. The El Paso Natural Gas Company (EPNG) found a gas field in Sublette County in 1954. The natural gas was in a tight sandstone formation and, according to a reporter for the Casper Star Tribune, at the time a worker said, “The only way they’ll get it out is to set off an atomic bomb down there.”
According to documents, EPNG first suggested nuclear stimulation to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1958, with active research by government agencies taking place as early as 1963. The detonation of Gasbuggy in New Mexico prompted EPNG to formally commit to Project Wagon Wheel.
Oddly all this research went unnoticed by the people of Sublette County and Wyoming. The earliest mention of that I could find regarding Project Wagon Wheel was a hint that an Associated Press article originating from Alaska published in early November 1971 mentioned plans for a project in Wyoming–although I never located the original article. The article was mentioned in a letter to Wyoming’s governor, Stanley K. Hathaway, in which the author asked the governor to try and stop the Atomic Energy Commission’s plans to detonate nuclear devices in Wyoming.
Governor Hathaway responded, December 10, 1971:
I am not aware of any planned nuclear test blasts by the AEC for Wyoming. I am confident that if the AEC plans such action that it will take the necessary precautions to protect the health and safety of Wyoming citizens and our environment.
The first known article specifically addressing Project Wagon Wheel was published in the Casper Star-Tribune on February 1, 1972. Six days later the newspaper lent its full support to the project. The support from Wyoming’s largest newspaper was not reflected by the Sublette County community. Concerned citizens formed the Wagon Wheel Information Committee in order to study the issue.
Wagon Wheel Information Committee
The Wagon Wheel Information Committee (WWIC) organized a meeting to review information about Project Wagon Wheel in March. Nearly 500 people attended the meetings—a remarkable number considering that the county had a population of only 3,755 in the previous census. Neither the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) nor EPNG were represented at the meeting.
An April 29, 1972, meeting, arranged by the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the Green River Valley Cattlemen’s Association, drew a large crowd and lasted five hours. Officials from the AEC and EPNG were present, with the director of EPNG, Phillip Randolph, assuring residents there was “little potential danger.”
Much information aiding the WWIC was found in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement—and Project Wagon Wheel was one of the first government projects affected by the then new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an act signed by President Nixon requiring governmental agencies to evaluate the environmental impact of its actions. Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are a two-stage process, including a draft statement for public comment to be followed by a final statement with a policy recommendation.
By law, environmental impact statements were to be completed prior to any action on the ground. The Draft EIS for Project Wagon Wheel, published in January 1972, included a photograph of the well site during the drilling of the well. The Final EIS was issued in April 1972.
The results of the Final EIS and a number of other studies did not inspire confidence in the local citizens. For example, Floyd Bousman, a commissioner of the Boulder Irrigation District, objected to the EIS valuation of the Boulder Dam at $150,000. The dam, built in 1965, cost over $280,000 to construct, with an estimated replacement cost in 1973 of $430,000.
End of the Line
Concurrent with the Federal elections in November, the Wagon Wheel Information Committee held a straw poll of Sublette County residents. Watched over by local sheriffs and local ministers, 873 out of 1,230 participating voters were opposed to Project Wagon Wheel.
By then the committee had moved far beyond the fact-finding consideration point and into vocal opposition. The committee requested and was granted meetings in Washington DC with the Wyoming congressional delegation, the Atomic Energy Commission, and EPNG officials. Additionally meetings were arranged with the Environmental Protection Agency, and co-chairman Floyd Bousman appeared on NBC’s Today Show.
WWIC found a sympathetic ear with the Wyoming congressional delegation. Congressman Tino Roncalio was appointed to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in January 1973. Shortly after his appointment, funding for Project Wagon Wheel was delayed. In May, the Congressman requested that the entire budget of $3.8 million for nuclear stimulation projects be eliminated.
Once nuclear stimulation was off the table, the well drilled for Project Wagon Wheel did not go unused. The shaft was used to test MHF—Massive Hydraulic Fracturing. MHF is a technique where water is pumped into a well until its pressure fractures the surrounding rocks. It was not found to be a commercially viable approach.
In addition to this page, there is a Nuclear Stimulation Primer that shows the basic theory behind using nuclear bombs to get natural gas out of tight sandstone formations. If you’re interested in sources, both primary and secondary, related to Project Wagon Wheel, information is available on Wagon Wheel Sources. Finally, there are the acknowledgments.