Feds scrambling to keep up with surge in drilling | AspenTimes.com

Feds scrambling to keep up with surge in drilling

Scott Condon

A surge of natural gas exploration in national forests is challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to supervise the oil and gas industry and protect public resources, according to the agency.”Anything that hits you so fast with such intensity, it takes awhile to respond. We’re doing our best,” said Randy Karstaedt, director of physical resources for the Forest Service’s regional office in Lakewood.There are 11 national forests in the region. Four of them are facing intense pressure from gas development, including the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle.High gas prices have sparked interest in drilling on lands that were being largely ignored just two years ago. About 10 percent of the 2.3 million acres in the White River National Forest are leased for gas exploration. The Forest Service expects to lease thousands of more acres this year.”Based on several drilling projects that were approved in 2003 and 2004 and those to be approved in early 2005, the forest could see up to 30 new wells drilled in 2005,” said an annual report by the White River forest supervisor’s office.Most of the activity is south of Rifle, but companies have also shown an interest in lands southwest of Carbondale.Karstaedt, whose duties include coordinating the monitoring of gas production in the forests, said he expects a “sustained high level” for the immediate future.The activity has created staffing problems for the Forest Service in two ways, Karstaedt said. First, the agency is hard pressed to find time for personnel to adequately evaluate the drilling applications submitted by gas companies. Proposals have to be reviewed for potential impacts on everything from wildlife habitat to roads and recreational lands.Second, the agency needs to monitor the drilling and associated work to make sure gas companies are meeting the conditions placed on their work.Conservationists have sounded the alarm that the Forest Service and other public land management agencies aren’t prepared to deal with the skyrocketing level of drilling. They aren’t crying wolf on this issue.Don Carroll, deputy forest supervisor on the White River, said it initially looked like the forest would be without an adequate budget and staff to keep up with the gas activity in 2005. But when the budget was finalized this spring the White River National Forest won a lottery of sorts. It received enough dollars from the regional office to devote one full-time and one part-time position to gas issues. Previously only a part-time position was funded.”It was a considerable bump up in dollars,” said Carroll. “We think we’re in pretty good shape now and for the immediate future.”The funds came just in time. The Forest Service anticipates releasing details and collecting public comment within the next two weeks on a proposal by Laramie Energy to drill 12 new wells on forest land south of Rifle, according to Carroll.The ability of the regional office to keep supplying funds to the White River to monitor gas activity remains to be seen. Karstaedt said funds are tight amid fierce competition within the agency. Congress hasn’t authorized the agency to charge the oil and gas industry for the evaluations and monitoring it must do.That appears to be a double standard. A permit holder like the Aspen Skiing Co. pays when the Forest Service must conduct an environmental analysis on a project like a ski area expansion.Karstaedt said there are prospects for the agency to receive more funds to deal with gas activity. The energy bill passed by the U.S. House would fund teams to evaluate and process applications to drill. The U.S. Senate takes up debate this week on an energy bill.Congress seems to be listening due to the concerns by the oil and gas industry.”Industry folks are knocking on the door and asking us to be more responsive,” said Karstaedt.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com