Drilling at New Castle wildlife area subject to new agreement | AspenTimes.com

Drilling at New Castle wildlife area subject to new agreement

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
An open meadow at Garfield Creek Wildlife Refuge stands out against the hills outside of New Castle on Thursday afternoon. (Chad Spangler/Post Independent)

GUNNISON, Colo. ” Colorado Wildlife Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved a surface-use agreement with Orion Energy Partners that will allow the company to begin drilling in Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area this summer.

Commissioners approved the agreement because if they didn’t, Orion could simply ignore Colorado Division of Wildlife requests to lessen its impacts on the wildlife area, located outside New Castle, pay the state a bond and begin drilling in the habitat within 30 days ” once it received a state permit to drill.

Ron Velarde, northwest regional manager for the DOW, told the commissioners during a workshop Thursday that Orion has indicated to the state that it would go that route if commissioners did not approve the agreement.

One commissioner asked if the wildlife commission had any legal “leg to stand on” if it voted against the agreement with Orion. An agency attorney simply responded that the DOW couldn’t stop Orion from drilling in the 13,200-acre wildlife refuge for deer, elk and other wildlife. That’s because while the agency owns the surface, it does not own the mineral rights below.

Orion plans to drill one exploratory well about 200 yards from Garfield County Road 312, south of New Castle, at a site selected by the DOW. The company also plans to install a 2.4-mile pipeline and build an access road of about 200 feet at the site.

Dorothea Farris, a newly appointed wildlife commissioner and Pitkin County commissioner, said she thought it was unfortunate that the oil and gas industry does not recognize “that some areas should not be developed.” Orion representatives were at the workshop, but they did not speak.

The commissioners’ approval of the agreement with Orion comes at a time when a protest the DOW filed against the sale of a federal mineral lease parcel underneath the state wildlife area has yet to be resolved. The Bureau of Land Management auctioned off that parcel in February.

The DOW wrote a letter to the BLM in late January, asking that the sale of the parcel be delayed indefinitely because the land on top “provides crucial winter range for deer and elk that are finding fewer and fewer places to inhabit without conflict.”

The surface-use agreement the commissioners approved includes several wildlife and environmental mitigation requirements that Orion will have to follow. Those include seasonal drilling restrictions.

“The purpose of working on the surface-use-agreement with Orion was so we could have control over the surface and obtain compensation for damages and impose seasonal closures and have recourse to go back to the company if something is not done properly,” said Kim Kaal, a DOW energy liaison for northwest Colorado.

Velarde said if it were up to him “there wouldn’t be any drilling.” However, Orion chose to engage the DOW in its development of the area.

“They have been working with us for 10 months to come up with a package where we minimize the impact on wildlife,” Velarde said.

Orion has agreed to implement best management practices, which include reducing odor and dust from its operations and using pipelines to transport produced water that will reduce the amount of truck activity from Orion’s drilling operations. The company also agreed to perform water sampling for a radius of one mile around the well pad.

Velarde stressed that the surface-use agreement commissioners approved Thursday is only for the one well.

If Orion is successful and wants to drill more wells, then the agency and the company are going to have to “go back to the drawing board,” with the state requiring more compensation and additional mitigation that will minimize the impacts to wildlife, Velarde said.

Despite the nearly insurmountable legal obstacle in preventing drilling from occurring in Garfield Creek, area resident Susan Will asked commissioners to not approve the surface-use pact.

“The employees of the DOW never dreamed that we would be talking about gas drilling on the wildlife area,” said Will, who lives near the habitat. “It is the only area that has winter range that has not been affected by the oil and gas industry.”

While Will said she appreciated the efforts DOW officials and Orion representatives have made to come to an agreement, she was “certain this project is going to have a huge, lasting and detrimental effect.”

“This is an area that cannot be replaced,” Will said.