Editorial: Pitco test-well plan cause for alarm
November 23, 2013
An oil company's application to embark upon exploratory drilling for natural gas in Pitkin County should serve as a wake-up call for those who have yet to heed the call of critics of energy exploration in Thompson Divide.
Houston-based SG Interests wants to drill about five miles south of Sunlight Mountain Resort and 10 miles southwest of Carbondale in an area of northwest Pitkin County that is part of the White River National Forest and the overall Thompson Divide area. A Nov. 13 application to the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management provides more details about the possible impacts from the test wells than were previously available.
The test-well project would generate an estimated 222 round trips by vehicles involved in improving forest roads and reconstructing an abandoned well pad. Those vehicles, according to the company, would be hauling heavy equipment, crews, supplies and water. Drilling and completion of the test wells would add as many as 812 round trips, should the results of the first test well prove successful enough for a second one. Most of the trips involved with drilling and completion involve bringing in fresh water to the test locations and hauling out wastewater.
Not only would the process involve hundreds of large truck trips, but the drilling would involve the controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," of rock formations. The fracking process has generated international debate since it came into practice in the 1990s, with proponents touting its low record of environmental impacts and critics pointing to many potential problems such as contamination of ground water, depletion of fresh water, risks to air and ground quality, and health effects.
The drilling won't start anytime soon because a challenge by Thompson Divide opponents to the BLM's sale of energy leases to federal lands has yet to be resolved. But should the test wells be allowed to proceed, the impacts primarily would be felt in Garfield County and Glenwood Springs, which would bear the brunt of the traffic. Access to the well sites would start at Four Mile Road in Glenwood Springs before turning onto Forest Road 300 near Sunlight Mountain Resort; numerous residential areas would be passed along the way.
Consider that the application applies only to two test wells, and the possibility of more than 1,000 trucktrips exists. What if the lease issue is resolved favorably from the industry's standpoint, the test wells are successful and production is allowed to proceed? How many more thousands of truck trips would all of the leases generate?
What would result would be a massive industrial zone in the heart of the pristine Thompson Divide, which generates $30 million annually from recreational and agricultural uses. And while energy production is nothing new for Pitkin County, it hasn't been conducted within county borders for several decades, and recent public comments to federal agencies and The Aspen Times would suggest that it is no longer welcome.
The issues surrounding energy drilling are complex, but boiled down to their essence, they are actually simple. Drilling carries the potential for serious environmental harm of land, air and water. Drilling requires many thousands of truck trips that result in noise and air pollution. Drilling, if allowed to proceed in the Thompson Divide, will scar much of the landscape, changing it forever in the eyes of the residents, hunters, fishermen, tourism operators, farmers and ranchers who already derive major benefits from within it.
We are glad that SG Interests' application was filed because it lays out the issues surrounding drilling impacts in tangible terms. And we hope that it will spark the general public into action, including increased support for the Thompson Divide Coalition and its efforts to ban drilling in the area, which include lobbying state and national lawmakers.
Those who are on the fence might consider what their lives would be like if they lived on the quiet mountain roads where hordes of industrial vehicles might one day be allowed to carry men and machines, wastewater and supplies. It's fuel for thought.