Industry groups: White River forest oil, gas lease plan short-sighted

The White River National Forest’s recently released that the oil and gas leasing plan is “marred with political interference,” lacks proper analysis and fails to balance energy development with conservation interests, say a trio of trade groups in making their formal objection to the plan Tuesday.

In particular, the plan released by WRNF Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams in December, does not recognize the importance of two shale-gas plays that lie beneath the local forest in meeting the nation’s future energy needs, according to a joint statement issued by the Western Energy Alliance, West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association (WSCOGA) and Public Lands Advocacy.

“While failing to analyze the actual oil and natural gas potential in the area, particularly of the Mancos and Niobrara formations, the Forest Service blithely removes nearly 1.3 million acres from oil and natural gas leasing,” the groups argue.

By imposing a blanket “No Surface Occupancy” stipulation for any new leases that are issued, the new management plan severely restricts the areas that remain available for leasing, the groups also claim.

Further, the plan “is based on the flawed presumption that oil and natural gas development is incompatible with agriculture, recreation, outfitting, wildlife and protection of other natural resources by ignoring nearly 60 years of oil and natural gas history in the area that proves otherwise,” the groups said in a news release.

The new management plan guiding oil and gas leasing on the 2.3 million-acre White River Forest for the next 15 to 20 years was announced in a draft decision issued by Fitzwilliams on Dec. 9 of last year. A 60-day period during which formal objections could be filed ended on Tuesday.

The leasing plan removes about 1.3 million acres from consideration for future leasing that are not already part of wilderness areas. It reduces the amount of acreage available for leasing from 411,475 acres under the 1993 plan to 194,123 acres.

Among the areas designated as off limits to new leasing is 61,000 acres within what’s known as the Thompson Divide region south of Glenwood Springs and west of Carbondale that was considered to have “high potential” for natural gas development.

Conservation groups, including the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC), have been working for years to prevent natural gas development in that area, and have argued for existing undeveloped leases to be allowed to expire.

A total of 65 previously issued gas leases in the Thompson Divide and in an area of the WRNF stretching west to the Grand Mesa are being reviewed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

“The Mancos and Niobrara shales are the future of oil and natural gas development on the West Slope and are important to our economy,” said David Ludlam, executive director for WSCOGA.

“Taking away public access to these significant shale gas resources is a decision that must not be taken lightly and its impacts to local governments must be fully disclosed,” he said. “We believe this objection is the first step in making sure the multiple-use mission of the Forest Service isn’t forgotten.”

Ludlam said the Mancos play has shown potential for gas production in the areas taken out of consideration, and to not allow leasing there for 20 years would be short-sighted.

He reiterated that the forest decision appeared to be politically motivated, rather than based on a reasonable analysis.

Conservation groups, meanwhile, reacted harshly to the industry’s position Tuesday, and said the forest decision is one that takes into consideration local concerns about natural gas development in areas such as the Thompson Divide.

“This is polarizing rhetoric, at best,” said Jock Jocober, a Glenwood Springs-area rancher and TDC board members, in a prepared statement.

“The industry would like us to believe that the concerns of ranchers, small business owners, and local governments should not be heard,” he said. “We disagree wholeheartedly”

Jocober also pointed to recent decisions by WPX Energy and others to slow down operations in the Piceance Basin due to the low price of natural gas currently, and said it doesn’t make sense to keep areas such as the Thompson Divide open for new leasing.

Added TDC Executive Director Zane Kessler, “The White River decision is a clear indication that public support for protecting Thompson Divide can and should carry significant weight under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).”

The industry groups, in objecting to the forest plan, are asking that the plan be rejected in favor of a new NEPA analysis.

Other objections to the plan were filed by individual energy companies, although some came for conservation groups, including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

“Generally, we think the Forest Service made a good step toward balance in its decision,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the organization. “The decision leaves significant resources open to future leasing while protecting areas that are far from existing development and proven production.”

Wilderness Workshop’s objection was to the Forest Service’s decision to maintain leasing in the upper portion of East Divide Creek south of Silt, Hart said.

“We objected to the Forest Service decision not to protect that area because it retains exceptional value for wildlife, hunting and fishing, recreation, and water production for domestic and agricultural use,” he said.

Forest Supervisor Fitzwilliams said he could not respond to the specific objections to his decision at this time.

“I am not surprised we received objections on the draft (decision),” he said. “These are hard decisions and at times it is difficult to find common ground. I look forward to working through the objection process in a transparent manner.”

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