Forest target of increased gas drilling
Federal agencies, scrambling to keep up with applications for natural gas development in Garfield County, are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to issuing timely drill permits.The Forest Service has 30 days to approve applications for permits to drill. In reality, because of environmental considerations and public comment and appeal periods set by the National Environmental Policy Act, the time frame is closer to six months, said White River National Forest oil and gas property manager Larry Sandoval.While it is a peripheral player in the oil and gas boom in the county, the White River National Forest has seen activity increase exponentially over the last three years.In 2002, one exploratory project calling for three wells was proposed on the forest near Haystack Mountain south of Silt. By June of 2003, the forest had received proposals for five projects with a total of 16 wells, on East and West Mamm Creeks, Alkali Creek and Uncle Bob Mountain.The following year, Laramie Energy came into the picture after purchasing existing oil and gas leases in the Alkali Creek area. Its Hells Gulch project called for 12 wells that year.Also in 2004, EnCana, the largest natural gas producer in the county, drilled an exploratory well in the Wolf Creek Field near Four Mile Park southwest of Glenwood Springs. “Nothing came of it,” Sandoval said.The Wolf Creek field, which was drilled in the 1960s and ’70s, was converted to gas storage in 1976 as gas production played out. Kinder Morgan runs its Rocky Mountain Natural Gas pipeline there and stores gas in the 12 existing wells, Sandoval said.Wolf Creek could be a target for future exploration and production.”As companies become more comfortable with the results of their exploration programs, and as exploration expands to areas that previously would not have been economically viable, oil and gas companies eventually approach us with larger development proposals,” Maribeth Gustafson, White River National Forest supervisor, said in an editorial in the Post Independent Wednesday.Energy production on the national forest is more challenging than in the center of the gas-rich Piceance Basin. Higher altitudes mean a shorter working season. The forest imposes a drilling ban from Dec. 1 to April 14 to protect elk and deer wintering areas. Companies can maintain existing wells, but drilling for new wells, including construction of well pads, is prohibited.Some areas are also closed until the end of June to protect elk calving grounds.Also challenging for natural gas production companies is the geology in the upper reaches of the basin, on national forest lands. The Colorado River Valley bottom, where the richest and most heavily-exploited gas fields are located, have natural “sags,” where thicker sandstone deposits have trapped larger lenses of gas. Companies operating in those areas are “picking the low fruit on the tree,” Sandoval said. “As you gain elevation and go south in the Piceance Basin the gas-rich deposits thin out.”In 2005, Laramie Energy submitted a plan for 52 wells from seven well pads in the Hells Gulch area, which will be drilled over a three to five year period, Sandoval said. The forest encourages companies to plan ahead to give the planning process time to take its course, he said.What may help speed up drill permit processing is a pilot project of the Bureau of Land Management. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates shorter time frames for issuing drilling permits. To that end, the BLM, which manages federal minerals, will launch specialized offices in gas boom areas of the country. In Glenwood Springs, the BLM hopes to open an office at the end of March that will issue federal drilling permits and manage oil and gas production on federal lands in the area, said Steve Bennett, the assistant field office manager of the BLM Glenwood Springs . The only one of its kind in Colorado, it will be staffed by representatives from the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.The BLM has leased space in a building owned by Glenwood Springs dentist Rob Anderson on south Grand Ave., Bennett said. The BLM also plans to construct a new office building within the next two to three years.The office “will give us greater capability” to process drilling permits and monitor production activity, Bennett said.The BLM has also seen an exponential increase in requests for drilling permits over the last couple years. In 2004, it issued 186 permits. That number grew to 285 last year, compared to “50 to 100 permits in 2003,” Bennett said. This year the BLM projects it will issue 400 permits that will increase to between 600 to 700 over the next two years.The pilot office “would be the biggest improvement for us,” Sandoval said, with resource specialists dedicated exclusively processing permit applications and conducting environmental assessments on potential drilling and production areas. But the agency is also concerned its own needs are met, Sandoval said. While the BLM manages federal minerals, the Forest Service is responsible for ensuring the surface of lands it manages is not adversely impacted by oil and gas production.With increased exploration and production on forest lands, the agency can increase its efficiency in processing drilling permits by conducting environmental assessments over larger areas than single well pad sites.The BLM now has Geographic Area Plans for gas companies seeking to drill multiple wells over relatively large areas, often over a two- or three-year period. Sandoval said the forest is considering such an approach to Laramie Energy’s proposal for Hells Gulch.”Once we get the GAPs in place we will be in a position that we could meet the (30-day APD) time frame,” he said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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