Activist: Test wells are ‘tip of the iceberg’ | AspenTimes.com

Activist: Test wells are ‘tip of the iceberg’

Two environmental groups that are trying to prevent natural-gas production in Thompson Divide said an oil company's application to drill test wells provides a glimpse of how the backcountry would be transformed into an industrial zone.

SG Interests has applied to drill two test wells from the same pad in the heart of Thompson Divide, 221,500 acres in the White River National Forest between Sunlight Mountain Resort to the north and McClure Pass to the south. The application to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management estimates there will be more than 1,000 round trips into and out of Thompson Divide by trucks associated with the drilling of the two exploratory wells.

"The 1,000 truck trips estimated in SG's submission are just the tip of the iceberg," said Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop, the oldest independent environmental organization in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The number of wells and the intensity of activity will increase if SG Interests likes the results of its first two test efforts, Hart said. The company has applied to drill six wells thus far. If the wells turn out to be worthy of production, the construction and truck traffic will be magnified from efforts to restimulate, recondition and resume hydraulic fracturing of the wells, he said.

“The consequences are real and they’re irreversible.”
Zane Kessler, Thompson Divide Coalition

"By framing this development as an exploratory drilling proposal, SG is attempting to avoid a discussion about what full-field development would look like," Hart said in an email to The Aspen Times following an interview about SG Interests' application. "If they find what they're looking for, though, the camel's nose will already be under the tent, and the public will be faced with impacts exponentially more intense."

The Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition sent an email to its members Thursday evening sounding an alarm about how the impacts of production wells would be much greater than the truck traffic and other effects of two test wells.

"This should serve as a wake-up call for our entire community," the email said. "If a couple of test wells bring over (1,000) trucks and major road reconstruction, what would Glenwood look like if they really started drilling?"

The Thompson Divide Coalition is leading the effort to prevent future leasing of federal lands in Thompson Divide for gas development. It also is attempting to retire existing leases.

The two proposed test wells are five miles south of Sunlight Mountain Resort and about 10 miles southwest of Carbondale. They are in extreme northwest Pitkin County, but access would be from Four Mile Road starting in Glenwood Springs and connecting to a network of forest roads that would be enlarged to handle the industrial traffic.

In an interview, Thompson Divide Coalition executive director Zane Kessler said SG Interests' latest application provides people who are watching the debate over drilling with a clear picture about the potential changes at stake.

"The consequences are real, and they're irreversible," Kessler said.

Those consequences go beyond truck traffic and updates to forest roads, he said. The work would fragment wildlife habitat and present threats to air and water quality. The coalition said 99 percent of Thompson Divide is used for recreation, hunting and agriculture. The area supports about 300 jobs and $30 million per year in economic value from recreationists and ranchers, according to an independent study commissioned by the coalition.

Kessler said the lands of Thompson Divide are more valuable in the long run for the continued, sustainable uses than for the short-term gains of gas drilling, which would harm the other uses.

"The question of 'For what?' keeps coming up in my head," Kessler said of drilling.

Representatives of SG Interests have declined requests to discuss the application with The Aspen Times. The company's application said it is following the normal process of exploring resources on federal lands that it leased.

"It is the policy of the BLM to make mineral resources available for disposal and to encourage development of mineral resources to meet national, regional, and local needs (Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976)," SG Interests' application said.

"This project would allow SG Interests and BLM to gain knowledge and collect data related to the natural gas resource in order for SG Interests to operate and produce the lease according to their BLM obligations and to provide additional energy to the local, regional and national markets," the gas company's application continued.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the agency would not start the environmental analysis of the two test wells until a dispute over some of SG Interests' leases is resolved by the BLM.

Wilderness Workshop, the Thompson Divide Coalition and Pitkin County all contend that some of the federal land in Thompson Divide was leased illegally in violation of roadless-area protections. In addition, they claim the BLM was obligated to allow 13 of SG Interest' leases to expire in May and another three leases to expire in July because the company allegedly failed to perform work required within 10 years of obtaining the mineral rights. Leases typically expire after 10 years if the development process hasn't started.

Wilderness Workshop contends the drilling proposal shouldn't be considered because the leases are invalid. SG Interests claims the oil and gas leases are valid.

If the proposal for the test wells is considered, the BLM and Forest Service should force SG Interests to disclose its big-picture plan for all wells and disclose all the impacts, Wilderness Workshop said.

scondon@aspentimes.com