GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to reduce the amount of land in the White River National Forest that can be leased for oil and gas production and it aims to limit surface disturbance on a greater number of acres, according to a proposed plan released Wednesday.
The Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Environmental Impact Statement will dictate where drilling can occur on national forest lands in Pitkin, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Gunnison and Mesa counties. It will also determine where "surface occupation" such as road building and tree cutting can occur.
"This is a critical document," said Peter Hart, an attorney for Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation group.
The Forest Service's proposed action would result in significantly reduced drilling activity in the sprawling White River National Forest. The document indicated the number of wells that would be drilled could drop about 66 percent if the proposed action is adopted compared to what's possible under current conditions.
Hart said the 1993 oil and gas plan opened the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale to leasing. Citizens' groups are now trying to prevent additional leasing in that area and prevent gas companies from developing existing leases. It's important for the public to get involved when plans are drawn for drilling activity so that battles aren't fought after public lands are already made available, he said.
The draft document will update a 1993 version, which proved to be inadequate when the natural gas boom swept across western Garfield County in the 2000s.
"The level of oil and gas leasing, drilling, and production activity on the White River National Forest has surged since the 1993 Oil and Gas Leasing Final Environmental Impact Statement decision," the current draft says.
Prior to 1993, there were about 43,000 acres of leased land on 54 leases in the forest. Since 1993, there have been another 87,000 acres leased on 89 leases, with the majority of the recent activity coming between 2000 and 2004.
New drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing, have made it more feasible to go after oil and gas reserves that were previously too expensive to extract. The draft document also noted that public interest in oil and gas leasing has also surged, generating additional need to revise the 1993 plan.
The Forest Service promotes a "proposed action" in the draft EIS, which looked at four alternatives. If the proposed action is ultimately approved after public comment and further internal review by the Forest Service, it will:
• Reduce the amount of forest land that can be administratively available for lease by the oil and gas industry from 417,264 to 260,308 acres, a decrease of 156,956 acres, or 37.5 percent.
Much of the land available for leasing is clustered in the northwest section of the forest, in Rio Blanco County, and in extreme western Pitkin County as well as Garfield and Mesa counties. No drilling activity is contemplated around Aspen or the Roaring Fork Valley, or in Eagle or Summit counties.
• Increase the number of acres off limits to leasing through management practices from 1.12 million to 1.22 million. In addition, the number of acres legally closed for leasing would increase from 749,386 to 800,555 acres.
• Protect natural resources on the ground by increasing the amount of forest covered by No Surface Occupancy rules. The strict limits on surface disturbance would apply to 204,938 acres available for future leases. Existing leases will play by the rules drafted in 1993.
However, the Forest Service anticipates that 60 existing leases covering 70,000 acres will expire, then be leased again under the tougher regulations. Hart said Wilderness Workshop questions that assumption.
• Curtail the amount of drilling in the forest if changes in management and restrictions on surface occupancy are adopted. The proposed action would result in drilling of up to 228 wells on up to 49 pads, the draft document said. If no changes are made and current management is maintained, 678 wells could be drilled using 113 pads.
Despite the reduction in drilling activity, Hart said conservation groups aren't ready to claim victory. The tougher regulations could prompt gas companies to work harder to develop leases they hold under the old rules, according to Hart. He believes that could result in more drilling than the Forest Service's document anticipates.
While the reduction in the number of acres available for leasing looks good on paper, in reality it's not taking any valuable land away from the industry, Hart said. Many of the nearly 157,000 acres proposed to be made unavailable simply don't hold promising reserves of oil or gas, he said. Some of the land targeted to be removed from availability is in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County, around Basalt Mountain and Red Table Mountain.
Nevertheless, Hart credited the Forest Service with realizing the 1993 rules needed to be revised and updated to reflect the surge of activity that has taken place and could resume in a different economic climate.
"It's absolutely imperative that the agency undertake this update now," Hart said. The federal government, he said, "has been approving a lot of oil and gas leasing that hasn't been analyzed - and that's just not legal."
While the Forest Service determines land availability and lease stipulations in the White River National Forest, the actual leasing is handled by the Bureau of Land Management. Hart was critical of the BLM for advancing on leases despite inadequate analysis of consequences during the surge of drilling in the 2000s.
The proposed changes in the oil and gas plan don't resolve the dispute over drilling in Thompson Divide. Lands will remain available for leasing there, although the stricter limits on surface occupancy will also apply to future leases.
A 60-day comment period opens today and ends in late October. The Forest Service will soon release information on how public comments should be submitted.