GLENWOOD SPRINGS - The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to reduce the amount of land in the White River National Forest that can be leased for oil and gas production, and it aims to limit surface disturbance on a greater number of acres, according to a plan released Wednesday.
The Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Environmental Impact Statement will dictate where drilling can occur in Pitkin County as well as portions of Garfield, Rio Blanco, Gunnison and Mesa counties. It also will determine where "surface occupation" such as road building and tree cutting can occur.
"This is a critical document," said Peter Hart, an attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, the Aspen area's oldest conservation group.
The Forest Service's proposed action would result in significantly reduced drilling activity in the sprawling White River National Forest. The document indicated that the number of wells that would be drilled could drop about 66 percent if the proposed action is adopted, compared with what's possible under current conditions.
Hart said the 1993 oil-and-gas plan opened the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale to leasing. Citizens' groups are now trying to prevent additional leasing in that area and prevent gas companies from developing existing leases. It's important for the public to get involved when plans are drawn for drilling activity so that battles aren't fought after public lands already are made available, he said.
The draft document will update a 1993 version that proved to be inadequate when the natural-gas boom swept western Garfield County in the 2000s.
"The level of oil and gas leasing, drilling, and production activity on the White River National Forest has surged since the 1993 Oil and Gas Leasing Final Environmental Impact Statement decision," the current draft says.
Prior to 1993, there were about 43,000 acres of leased land on 54 leases in the forest. Since 1993, there have been another 87,000 acres leased on 89 leases, with the majority of the recent activity coming between 2000 and 2004.
New drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing, have made it more feasible to go after oil and gas reserves that were previously too expensive to extract. The draft document also noted that public interest in oil and gas leasing also has surged, generating additional need to revise the 1993 plan.
The Forest Service promotes a "proposed action" in the draft environmental impact statement, which looked at four alternatives. If the proposed action is ultimately approved after public comment and further internal review by the Forest Service, it will:
• Reduce the amount of forest land that can be administratively available for lease by the oil-and-gas industry from 417,264 to 260,308 acres, a decrease of 37.5 percent. Much of the land available for leasing is clustered in the northwest section of the White River National Forest, in Rio Blanco County and in extreme western Pitkin County as well as Garfield and Mesa counties. No drilling activity is contemplated around Aspen or the Roaring Fork Valley or in Eagle or Summit counties.
• Increase the number of acres unavailable for leasing through management practices from 1.12 million to 1.22 million. In addition, the number of acres legally closed for leasing would increase from 749,386 to 800,555 acres.
• Protect natural resources on the ground by increasing the amount of forest covered by "no surface occupancy" rules. The strict limits on surface disturbance would apply to 204,938 acres available for future leases. Existing leases will play by the rules drafted in 1993. However, the Forest Service anticipates that 60 existing leases covering 70,000 acres will expire and then be leased again under the tougher regulations. Hart said the Wilderness Workshop questions that assumption.
• Curtail the amount of drilling in the forest if changes in management and restrictions on surface occupancy are adopted. The proposed action would result in the drilling of as many as 228 wells on as many as 49 pads, the draft document said. If no changes are made and current management is maintained, 678 wells could be drilled using 113 pads.
Despite the reduction in drilling activity, Hart said conservation groups aren't ready to claim victory. The tougher regulations could prompt gas companies to work harder to develop leases they hold under the old rules, according to Hart. He believes that could result in more drilling than the Forest Service's document anticipates.
While the reduction in the acres available for leasing looks good on paper, in reality it's not taking any valuable land away from the industry, Hart said. Many of nearly 157,000 acres proposed to be made unavailable simply don't hold promising reserves of oil or gas, he said. Some of the land targeted for removal from availability is in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County, around Basalt Mountain and Red Table Mountain.
Nevertheless, Hart credited the Forest Service with realizing that the 1993 rules needed to be revised and updated to reflect the surge of activity that has taken place and could resume in a different economic climate.
"It's absolutely imperative that the agency undertake this update now," Hart said. The federal government, he said, "has been approving a lot of oil and gas leasing that hasn't been analyzed - and that's just not legal."
While the Forest Service determines land availability and lease stipulations in the White River National Forest, the actual leasing is handled by the Bureau of Land Management. Hart was critical of the BLM for advancing on leases despite inadequate analysis of consequences during the surge of drilling in the 2000s.
The proposed changes in the oil-and-gas plan don't resolve the dispute over drilling in Thompson Divide. Lands will remain available for leasing there, although the stricter limits on surface occupancy also will apply to future leases.
Hart said Wilderness Workshop will review the entire document to determine whether it supports a specific alternative or a blending of alternatives. A 60-day comment period will open Friday and end in late October. The conservation group intends to offer comments. The Forest Service will soon release information on how public comments should be submitted.