Hearing brings forest drilling plan objectors to the table
Objections to new natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide region should not be taken to mean that existing facilities, such as the Wolf Creek storage field, are inappropriate in any way, Pitkin County assistant attorney Chris Seldin told White River National Forest officials Monday during a special hearing in Glenwood Springs on the draft oil and gas leasing plan for the forest.
Seldin said the Wolf Creek field, a 9,500-acre gas storage field south of Sunlight Mountain Resort operated by SourceGas as part of its natural gas distribution system, is “characteristically … different than having active drilling and well activity.”
“As for the substance of the decision, we strongly support it and are grateful that the Forest Service has taken into account the views of local governments,” Seldin said of White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams’ decision to close off 61,000 acres of “high potential” acreage for leasing within the Thompson Divide as part of the new 20-year leasing plan.
The decision, though, is painfully ironic, given the history of oil and gas activity in the region that is symbolized by the storage field, countered David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, one of several industry representatives speaking at Monday’s hearing.
Ludlam said that to make the area completely off limits for the next two decades ignores the potential to develop natural gas within the deep Niobrara and Mancos shale formations, and to do it without nearly as much impact as in the past given today’s new technologies, he and other industry representatives said.
One company, Houston-based SG Interests, already holds production rights beneath the storage field regardless of the final Forest Service decision, Ludlam noted.
Those rights and other existing leases held by SG Interests and Ursa Piceance are on the table for a potential lease exchange being proposed as a settlement to at least part of Thompson Divide equation. The area stretches across about 221,000 acres from Four Mile Park to McClure Pass.
The future availability to new leasing of that small section of the 2.2-million-acre White River National Forest is directly tied to the pending management plan.
The hearing Monday was a relatively new step in the appeals process for U.S. Forest Service management decisions.
Carbondale-based environmental group the Wilderness Workshop requested the oral hearing, part of the federal agency’s appeals rules that adopted in 2012.
Attending the hearing at the newly renovated WRNF Supervisor’s Headquarters in downtown Glenwood Springs were Fitzwilliams, Deputy Forester Jim Bedwell and other Forest Service officials, as well as objectors on both sides of the draft WRNF oil and gas leasing plan that was released in December.
At the table were representatives from each of seven objectors, including the Wilderness Workshop, energy companies SG Interests and, via phone, Encana and WillSource, and three industry groups that filed a joint objection to the leasing decision: West Slope COGA, Western Energy Alliance and Public Lands Advocacy.
Pitkin and Mesa counties, both of which have filed formal objections to aspects of the draft decision, were also on hand.
Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, said his group thought it would be helpful if the various objectors could gather in one room to clarify their objections and attempt to come to some resolution of their differences.
The Wilderness Workshop, in concert with the Sierra Club, Conservation Colorado and others, are supportive of Fitzwilliams’ decision for the most part, Hart said.
“We are on record strongly supporting the closures and the stipulations contained in the plan,” he said in reference to roadless provisions and prohibiting surface facilities for any new leasing that does occur on forest lands.
He said West Slope COGA and others objecting to the leasing plan saying it violates federal law and was politically motivated “are not supported by the record or the law.”
“In reality, this is one of the first really balanced decisions we have seen in northwest Colorado,” Hart said. “This decision leaves open a huge area of the forest where 99 percent of the drilling already occurs.”
In its objection, the Wilderness Workshop asks that additional acreage in the upper East Divide Creek area, on the western fringe of the Thompson Divide, also be made off limits to new leasing.
“There is no current development there, and it ought to be closed for many of the same reasons as in the Four Mile and Thompson creek drainages,” Hart said.
Kathleen Sgamma, representing the Western Energy Alliance, said via telephone that the leasing decision is short-sighted.
“Oil and gas is a small and temporary disturbance on less than a 10th of a percent of our public lands,” she said.
With new technology, such as horizontal drilling that limits surface disturbance, many lands that have been developed and reclaimed have been proposed for wilderness protection afterward, she said.
“The notion that we must close lands to oil and gas is a false choice,” Sgamma said. “We can do both.”
She and Rebecca Watson, an attorney representing SG Interests, said the leasing decision failed to consider the socioeconomic impacts of closing certain parts of the forest where development potential exists.
Limiting access and surface facilities to new leases also “constrains” the ability for SG and others to develop existing leases, Watson said.
Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said the decision also affects the owners of mineral rights on private lands within the forest to develop their rights.
“We don’t want to ruin the environment, but I think we can get the oil and gas out of the ground and still do it responsibly,” he said.
Deputy Forester Bedwell, who is the reviewing official overseeing the objection process, said the various objections to the leasing decision will be responded to in writing by May 11, “or thereabouts.”
A final decision is expected soon after, although West Slope COGA and others have suggested the possibility of a legal challenge to the decision.
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Warmer than average temperatures and a lack of snowfall could push back Sunlight Mountain Resort’s opening day, but staff remain hopeful for a Dec. 10 opening, a Sunlight spokesperson said.