Natural gas drilling looms in Thompson Creek area |

Natural gas drilling looms in Thompson Creek area

It’s not a question of whether gas drilling is coming to the Carbondale area. By many predictions, it’s a matter of when.

Natural gas leases have been sold on much of the western tip of Pitkin County, southwest of Carbondale, from Coal Basin near Redstone, extending northward into Garfield County to Sunlight Mountain Resort. When those leases, covering six square miles or more, are drilled, that development can be expected to affect Carbondale’s air quality and traffic.

When the companies that hold those leases will decide to drill depends on the price producers are getting in the market, and whether the companies have leases elsewhere to exploit that are potentially more profitable, said Bureau of Land Management public information officer David Boyd. Though most of the leased area is on U.S. Forest Service land, the BLM is the agency that manages federal mineral rights, and the agency that handles leasing on lands the Forest Service decides to lease.

“It’s not uncommon for companies to hold a lease,” Boyd said. A gas drilling company can sit on a lease for up to 10 years before starting production, he said.

It shouldn’t be a complete surprise when drilling does begin in the area. Before drilling, gas exploration firms must go through an environmental assessment, and that process involves a public comment period, Boyd said.

“We’ll send out the proposed plan for public comment and review,” Boyd said. “That’s an opportunity for the public and local governments to offer any additional information we haven’t considered.”

It’s likely that drilling in the Thompson Creek area would draw some comments.

“This is Carbondale’s back yard,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. Much recreation takes place, summer and winter, in and near these leased tracts. The Spring Gulch cross country ski area and a popular sledding hill are in nearby Jerome Park. A hiking trail in the spectacular lower Thompson Creek canyon and popular mountain bike routes, as well as four-wheeling areas, would be affected.

Thompson Creek is an important source of water for area ranches, Shoemaker pointed out, and the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association grazes cattle in these areas.

“There’s a keen interest in Thompson Creek in this corner of Garfield County,” Shoemaker said.

Another subject of possible comments might be the potential for drilling in the Thompson Creek roadless area.

That’s a large area of roadless lands that is eligible for wilderness designation, but is almost entirely under gas leases, Shoemaker said. Two of the companies that hold these leases are EnCana and S G Interests, Ltd., he said.

Most of these leases were sold after 2001, when the Clinton Administration’s roadless rule went into effect, Shoemaker said. The roadless rule, which prohibited construction of roads in unroaded areas of public lands under certain circumstances, has stood up in court to an attempt to invalidate it by the current administration. But while it was in question, Colorado’s new Democratic state administration replaced it with a less stringent road policy, and it’s still not clear which will be the law of the land in Colorado.

“If the Roadless Rule stands … these leases would have to be developed without surface disturbance,” Shoemaker said. Most of the leases have a corner outside the boundary of the roadless area, so they could be drilled from there using directional drilling techniques, he said.

The Thompson Creek roadless area is an inventoried roadless area under the 2001 Roadless Rule. All inventoried roadless areas had to be mapped because roadlessness is a criterion that requires a higher level of analysis before development can occur, Shoemaker said.

The leases in the Thompson Creek area, both in the roadless area and nearby, may not be a high priority for gas companies.

“It’s widely assumed that these leases will be among the last to be developed because they’re remote, they’re at higher elevation, and in difficult terrain,” Shoemaker said. These factors will make development more expensive, and the industry will probably develop easier leases first, he said.

Dan Sokal, natural resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Glenwood Springs, said there are other restrictions, too, on some of the leases in the Thompson Creek area.

“There are multiple stipulations attached to some of these leases,” Sokal said. These stipulations include protections for cutthroat trout and elk and restriction of activities on steep slopes, he said.

Certain leases, including those along Middle Thompson Creek, have stipulations that no roads or well pads can be constructed within 350 feet of streams, and activities are limited between June 1 and Oct. 1, Sokal said. Other leases, those at lower elevations, characterized by scrub vegetation, are restricted from Dec. 1 to April 30, to protect winter habitat for elk, he said.

Those restrictions, Sokal said, will probably make it harder for gas companies to decide to drill within these leases.

But when the leases are developed, impacts on Carbondale will be unmistakable. Gasfield work generates a large amount of truck traffic. Drilling rigs and fracturing equipment and supplies are moved by truck. Numerous water trucks serve operations that don’t have access to local water. And, once gas wells are completed, tractor-trailer tankers frequently come and go from each wellhead, hauling away toxic liquid byproducts of natural gas called condensate, for the life of each well, which may be from 20 to 50 years.

“We would have to address traffic issues,” Sokal said. Drilling proposals are subjected to a scoping process by the Forest Service, and traffic is one thing that is examined, he said.

The only way to get to and from the Thompson Creek gasfields would be Garfield County Road 108, by way of Sweet Hill. Truck traffic might be directed onto County Road 109, past the back side of Aspen Glen to the Hardwick Bridge near Westbank Ranch, but an equally likely route is through Carbondale.

Also, due to the fact that Carbondale lies east and northeast of the gas leases in the Thompson Creek area, prevailing winds would tend to carry road dust, vehicle exhaust and escaped fumes from the gasfields to town.

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