New Castle state wildlife area targeted for gas drilling operations |

New Castle state wildlife area targeted for gas drilling operations

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

NEW CASTLE, Colo. ” Kyle Holt was driving on County Road 312 through the Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area when he saw pink flags and some men out in the refuge. He saw a neighbor and asked what the men were doing.

The answer disappointed him.

He was told that the wildlife area, where Holt said he’s seen 200 elk in a field where the flags were located, became another area affected by the area’s natural gas energy boom.

“It just doesn’t seem quite right,” he said, upset that the area is closed to residents but open to natural gas development. “Are our state wildlife areas up for grabs now as far as any kind of development goes? It seems like critical, fragile habitat up there.”

The Colorado Division of Wildlife and Denver-based Orion Energy Partners on Thursday confirmed that the company is making preliminary preparations to drill in the middle of the Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area, a 13,179-acre refuge south of New Castle.

The DOW issued a special-use permit to the company for limited surveying work of the environment and wildlife for future gas drilling operations, said Dean Riggs, area wildlife manager for the DOW’s Grand Junction office. Two people on behalf of the company, former DOW wildlife biologists, were in the area this week even though the area is currently closed for the winter as elk and deer winter in the area’s low-elevation region.

“They have asked for and received a special-use permit to do some very limited work in there right now,” Riggs said.

In recent conversations with the company, Riggs said he expects the company to send more people back to the wildlife area, maybe in May, for three or four days to do more work, including looking at raptor nesting activity.

Although the DOW owns the land and uses it for a elk and deer habitat, it cannot prevent drilling in the wildlife area because it does not own the mineral rights beneath the habitat’s surface.

“The challenge is that mineral owners have a right to extract those minerals. We are the surface owner, we really can’t do anything,” said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the DOW.

Doug Harris, vice president of operations for Orion Energy Partners, said the company is developing “best management practices” with the Division of Wildlife and the Colorado Wildlife Commission about its possible plan to drill in the area.

“We want to go in with everyone’s eyes wide open so that all of us understand the various issues,” Harris said. “We want participation from the DOW and any other stakeholder or local interest group. We want to make sure everyone understands what we are doing, why we are doing it, and that it is done with the best practices in mind. We would not have to go through that process if we just wanted to go in there and drill.”

Harris said the company’s proposed well pad is in the “heart” of the wildlife area on DOW land. He said the company hopes to find a time “that we would not impact the wildlife area” when it plans to drill its vertical well.

“Hopefully that will be this summer,” said Harris, adding any future wells will be drilled from the single well pad. The company has yet to receive a permit from the COGCC for its proposed well.

The mineral rights below the habitat belong to multiple owners – including one person who owns a large share of the mineral rights, the federal government and two or three other owners.

Federal mineral rights underneath the wildlife area are up for lease in a Feb. 14 lease sale. Those leases have no-surface-occupancy stipulations, which means that gas companies would have to directionally drill from other areas to extract the natural gas.

However, gas extraction from private mineral rights in the Garfield Creek wildlife reserve does not have any surface-occupancy restrictions, Hampton said.

Riggs said because of the split ownership of the land – with the DOW owning the surface rights and others owning the mineral rights – it is “probably in our best interests to try and work with (Orion).”

Oil and gas companies, if they own the mineral rights or lease them, most often try to reach agreements with surface owners for oil and gas extraction on their property. But if a deal can’t be reached, oil and gas companies can still place well pads and drilling rigs over the surface owner’s objections.

“Realistically, because of the mineral ownership they can force us into doing something,” Riggs said. “I guess we are taking the thought process that ‘OK, maybe it’s in our best interest to try and work this through with them and see what we can do. If that requires us to make a couple of exceptions there, again, we are probably in a better spot to do that rather than just dig our heels in and say no.”

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