Activists greet Forest Service, industry at proposed Divide well site
About a half hour into a briefing with activists and reporters Tuesday morning to explain the process of studying a proposed natural gas test well high up in the Thompson Divide west of Carbondale, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams got a little antsy.
It wasn’t that he was nervous about some of the questions he was fielding. It had to do with the fact that he’d just realized he was standing on top of an ant hill.
“The irony of stepping into an ant’s nest here has not escaped me,” Fitzwilliams quipped, as he brushed ants from his pant legs and sleeves.
“These things are normally pretty low key,” he said of the typically routine site visits to get an initial look at an area where any lease-based activity is proposed in the national forest, from oil and gas drilling to logging to outfitting.
“But nothing in the Thompson Divide is low key,” Fitzwilliams said of the controversy surrounding efforts by energy companies to drill on long-standing oil and gas leases in the area, and attempts by conservation and outdoor groups to prevent or at least limit drilling in the mostly undeveloped, roughly 221,000-acre divide region that stretches from south of Four Mile Park to the top of McClure Pass.
Fitzwilliams explained that the visit was a time for Forest Service specialists to ask their questions and begin to assess the proposal, rather than to address specifics about mitigation or whether drilling in the area is even appropriate.
“This is not the time to have all those answers, it’s the time to ask questions so that we can get to those answers,” he said.
STAKING THEIR CLAIM
As some members and supporters of the Thompson Divide Coalition and the Wilderness Workshop listened intently and asked their questions of Fitzwilliams, others walked along and observed as more than a dozen Forest Service personnel joined representatives from Houston-based SG Interests across Forest Road 300, where the proposed well would be located.
“This is our lunch spot,” said Marj Perry, who with her husband, Bill Fales, and other members of the Perry, Nieslanik and several other area ranching families run their cattle up out of Middle Thompson and Four Mile creeks.
“Once we get the cows rounded up, this is where we sit down and have lunch,” Perry said, surveying the open meadow that also serves as a popular hunting camp in the fall and year-round backcountry recreation area.
It’s also the headwaters for much of the field irrigation and ultimately drinking water in downstream communities such as Carbondale, not to mention critical big game habitat.
But that meadow also happens to sit right in the middle of the 12,000-acre Wolf Creek gas storage unit, which has existed as a natural gas production and storage site since the 1950s.
Natural gas utility SourceGas now uses the area to gather and store natural gas that is produced elsewhere, and distribute it to area communities, including Aspen, as needed during peak periods.
Deep beneath the storage area are also long-held drilling rights for natural gas resources that lie within the Mancos formation. A few years ago, SG Interests purchased those rights from SourceGas and is now looking to develop them.
“You’re standing in a gas field,” said Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG, who was on hand to provide information about the company’s proposal. “It’s not a producing field now, but it is a storage field and it has been for a very long time.”
At the time SG purchased the lease rights five years ago, “we did not anticipate this level of opposition,” he said.
“This is just the first step in a long process, and we have a long way to go before we even get to exploration,” Guinn said. “There will be plenty of opportunity for public input.”
Fitzwilliams concurred that it will likely take more than a year to evaluate the test well proposal. Any proposals for production wells after that would involve another whole review process, he said.
But the leases “are a valid, existing right,” Fitzwilliams said. “There may be circumstances where we can say ‘no,’ but a lot of times we can’t say, ‘You can’t have access to what you own.’”
That didn’t sit well with the 40 or so people who turned out to support the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition in greeting the Forest Service and industry personnel, many of whom camped out Monday night.
Many of them held signs offering messages such as “Hunters Love the Divide,” “Redefine Valuable,” “Keep Our Rivers Clean” and “2 Special 2 Drill.”
“It’s just so beautiful, and it’s not necessary to drill up here when there are other locations that have already been (drilled),” said Cattle Creek-area resident Bruce Lemire.
“It’s just not right to come into a pristine area like this and mess it up,” he said.
Carbondale rancher Marty Nieslanik and his dad, John Nieslanik, came up Tuesday morning to find out more about SG’s official “notice of staking” for the test well. It’s the first step in the process for SG to eventually seek an application to drill. If the test well proves successful, it could lead to more large-scale natural gas production in the future.
“They’re going to ruin the goddang country up here if they hit gas,” Marty Nieslanik said, pointing over the hillside to the west where he said he has seen several moose that now inhabit the region.
He’s just not convinced oil and gas production, ranching, hunting, recreation and wildlife habitat mix in such a remote, relatively untouched area.
Will Roush, conservation director for the Wilderness Workshop, said he was impressed by the turnout after putting out word last week about the campout and on-site protest.
“For a Tuesday morning when most everyone has a job, to come up here and show how important this place is, I think that says a lot,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get people to click online to sign a petition, so to see this … and the diversity of people, from sportsmen and ranchers to mountain bikers, it’s great.”
Any existing oil and gas leases in the region do not come under Fitzwilliams’ recent long-range decision to remove the Thompson Divide area from future leasing.
The Wolf Creek lease in question is also not part of the BLM’s ongoing environmental re-analysis of 65 leases, including those in the Thompson Divide and farther west on the White River National Forest, for which an Environmental Impact Statement is expected this fall.
The lease is, however, among those offered up by SG recently as part of a proposed lease exchange that would involve giving up leasing rights in the Thompson Divide for new leases farther to the west in Mesa County. Such an exchange would require congressional action.
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