John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

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October 21, 2012
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White River National Forest acreage for gas drilling to shrink

GLENWOOD SPRINGS- People have an extra month to comment on a federal study aimed at cutting nearly in half the acreage in the White River National Forest that is readily available for gas leasing.

Forest officials have given the public until Nov. 30 (instead of Oct. 30) to submit comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), a 622-page document aimed at directing oil and gas drilling on the forest for the next 15 to 20 years.

The DEIS, which was started more than two years ago, updates a 1993 decision governing oil and gas drilling on the 2.3-million-acre forest, which touches on eight counties in western Colorado.

"I wanted to keep it very open," said forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams of the U.S. Forest Service, speaking of the agency's process in formulating a "proposed action" alternative in the DEIS.

The proposed action is one of four alternatives being considered in the DEIS process, ranging from leaving the leasing program as it is to ending all new leasing on WRNF lands.

The agency, in its proposed action described in Alternative C, strikes a middle ground by reducing the WRNF acreage that is readily available for leasing from the current level of 417,000 acres to 260,000 acres.

The 37 percent reduction would cut 157,000 acres of forest lands, most of which straddles the boundary of Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, from the "administratively available" category. That category covers land that is readily available for leasing through the normal leasing process.

"That was entirely a geologic decision," said Fitzwilliams, concerning the reduction of acreage. He said there is a low potential for oil and gas production on that particular part of the forest, and there has been no indication of interest by industry to lease there.

"If we got indications of interest from the industry," he continued, "we would definitely revisit that."

Still in the "administratively available" category would be two sections of the forest in areas that already have seen considerable oil and gas activity. One would be in north-central Rio Blanco County and a small portion of Moffat County. The other is parallel to, but south of the Colorado River corridor, touching upon Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa counties.

Fitzwilliams explained that the proposed action reflects what the U.S. Forest Service believes is "a reasonable approach to the leasing of oil and gas on federal lands."

The oil and gas industry, however, is not happy with the plan, according to David Ludlam, executive director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry advocacy group.

"While our industry is somber about the outcome, we're not surprised," Ludlam wrote in an email. "This administrative approach to reducing access to publicly owned energy is the new normal on the West Slope over these last few years."

Environmental and land conservation groups also are dissatisfied with the DEIS, according to Peter Hart, spokesman for the Wilderness Workshop.

"The Forest Service needs to look at the bigger picture," Hart said.

Hart advocates Alternative B, which calls for an end to new leasing on the forest for now, and leaving all unleased lands as they are for others to use and enjoy.

Public use of forest land, he said, is a critical and sustainable component of the Garfield County economy. He said the Forest Service should support such uses, rather than rush to lease the land to extractive industries. Once oil and gas drilling has come and gone from an area, he maintained, the land is no longer attractive for recreation or other tourism-related activities.

Hart argued that the industry has thousands of leases in hand already across the West. Drilling has declined due to the low market prices for natural gas, he said, and there is no need to promote further leasing right now.

The DEIS is intended to update the agency's 1993 oil and gas EIS, which has been the official guideline for nearly 20 years.

The 1993 analysis opened 417,200 acres of the forest for oil and gas leasing, including the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale and forest land underlying Sunlight Mountain Resort.

"For some reason, Sunlight was overlooked, and for a while it was open to leasing. They could have put rigs up on the ski slopes," Fitzwilliams said.

That oversight has been rectified, he said, but the agency needed to update the 1993 decision to respond to technological advances such as the increased use of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to get at oil and gas deposits that were not accessible 20 years ago.

The current DEIS process does not, however, include an analysis of fracking, or address the ongoing national controversy regarding fracking and its impacts.

Fracking was not considered "relevant" to the purpose of the DEIS, the document states, because other federal regulations deal with questions about its impacts on air, water, soils and public health.

Also deemed "not relevant" to the DEIS process is the ongoing controversy over drilling in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Carbondale, where several companies own gas leases and have announced plans to drill.

Fitzwilliams said the DEIS is only concerned with future leasing decisions. The main Thompson Divide debate deals with 18 existing leases on about 32,000 acres, which are not within the scope of the DEIS, Fitzwilliams said.

The remaining 183,000 acres of unleased land in the Thompson Divide region would be covered by the DEIS alternatives, under the document's provisions for roadless areas.

The identified relevant issues, as listed in the DEIS, include local social, economic and environmental impacts, effects on scenic values, wildlife, aquatic and riparian systems, and roadless areas, among others.

According to Bill Kight, Forest Service community relations official for the WRNF office in Glenwood Springs, there currently are no active drilling rigs operating on the forest.

The last rig came down in 2007, when the plummeting prices of natural gas caused an industry-wide slump in gas development. The pre-slump drilling left 28 producing gas wells on WRNF lands, according to WRNF scientist Jason Gross.

Now the industry has hunkered down to await the outcome of the EIS process, Gross said.

The 1993 analysis made 417,200 acres "administratively available" for gas leasing, through normal administrative applications and approvals.

It categorized another 1.1 million acres as "unavailable ... through management direction." Under that category, lands are unavailable for drilling unless the industry asks the forest supervisor to open up those lands and provides convincing reasons to do so.

Under the 1993 decision, planners expected to see up to 1,004 more wells on up to 169 well pads, mostly in areas west of Glenwood Springs in Garfield and Mesa counties, as well as in Rio Blanco County.

Under the new DEIS, the anticipated number of wells would range from a low of 228 wells on 49 pads to 687 wells on 113 pads.

Most of the new leases, and wells, would be in the West Divide Creek and Thompson Divide region, generally following the Garfield County line and dipping into Mesa County to the west; and in an area of north-central Rio Blanco County and a small section of Moffat County.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the federal agency in charge of certain aspects of gas leasing on all federal lands, including national forests. It holds authority in requests for unitization of multiple leases into what is known as a producing unit, as is currently being considered for 18 Thompson Divide leases.

BLM also conducts gas lease sales, issues leases sold on forest lands, ensures that the Forest Service's surface use stipulations are included, and is in charge of lease management.

Although Fitzwilliams said he's never seen this happen, it is possible that BLM officials could choose to not adopt the Forest Service's new EIS, and write its own plan for gas leasing in the region.

The DEIS contains four alternatives for future oil and gas leasing on the White River National Forest.

• Alternative A is a "no action" alternative that would continue policies outlined in the 1993 Final EIS and Record of Decision. It would leave 417,000 acres available for leasing, 1.1 million acres available through appeal to the forest supervisor, and 749,300 acres "legally closed" - either wilderness areas or other categories closed by law and not subject to appeal.

• Alternative B, calls for "no more leasing" on WRNF lands. That would mean the existing allotment of approximately 130,000 acres, covered by 143 leases, would either be drilled or allowed to expire, which would withdraw them from the leaseable category. Beyond that, no more land would be leased for oil and gas drilling purposes.

• Alternative C is the U.S. Forest Service's "proposed action," although Fitzwilliams said that could change depending on public input and other influences.

This alternative would limit lands readily open to gas exploration to 260,264 acres, make 1.2 million acres open only through an appeal, and legally close 800,555 acres of forest lands.

• Alternative D proposes the same acreage splits as C, and would impose "No Surface Occupancy" stipulations on a large portion of roadless areas in the leaseable sections.

Within all four of the alternatives, the forest planners have introduced a set of stipulations, which are added controls on how and when drilling can take place on leased national forest lands.

The stipulations include:

• No Surface Occupancy (NSO), requiring lease holders to drill directionally from adjacent lands.

• Controlled Surface Use (CSU), a looser restriction limiting surface disturbances.

• Timing Limitation (TL), limiting drilling to certain periods of each year to avoid such things as wildlife calving season, migration or other activities deemed sensitive to surface disturbances associated with oil and gas drilling.

Once the EIS is completed and adopted, what can be expected if Alternative C, the proposed action, is the ultimate decision?

There will be less land open to leasing right away, although Wilderness Workshop's Peter Hart discounted the reduced leasing potential of Alternative C.

"That's just a red herring," he said. "It's areas that nobody's going to develop anyway. It seems like it would be smarter to close it until we know more, or until we need it."

Area residents undoubtedly will debate the wisdom of the EIS for years, but the industry's feelings already are a matter of record.

"The million-plus acres that will be closed to responsible energy development is disappointing, but new restrictions on areas theoretically open are disheartening," said David Ludlam, industry spokesman. "The compounding new stipulations and regulations make future leasing and drilling much more difficult, expensive, and, in some cases, impossible."

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 21, 2012 09:33AM Published Oct 21, 2012 09:27AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.