Proposal would limit gas drilling in White River National Forest
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – About 141,000 acres of sensitive lands now available for gas drilling in the White River National Forest surrounding Aspen would get special protection under new rules proposed Wednesday.
The agency intends to place a stipulation of “no-surface occupancy” on officially inventoried roadless lands, said Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. The stipulation means there couldn’t be construction of roads or scraping of gas well pads.
“It means nothing on the surface,” Fitzwilliams said.
Gas extraction from roadless lands could still occur when energy companies could use directional drilling. Wells could be drilled from pads on private lands or public lands adjacent to roadless areas, Fitzwilliams said. Directional drilling taps gas from an angle rather than from drilling straight down.
In some areas where there are large segments of roadless land, the no-surface occupancy stipulation would effectively eliminate drilling activity, Fitzwilliams acknowledged.
If the proposal is adopted after extensive review, the rules could limit gas drilling in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale. A coalition of cowboys and environmentalists, in a group called the Thompson Divide Coalition, is fighting to get federal legislation to remove the possibility of energy companies leasing 220,000 acres in Thompson Creek and beyond, including lands outside of the White River National Forest.
In the meantime, the proposed stipulation for no-surface occupancy of roadless lands is a “great start,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop, which is assisting the Thompson Divide Coalition. “It looks like it’s going the right direction.”
The protection of the roadless lands is part of the U.S. Forest Service’s broader effort to determine which lands in the 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest are appropriate for gas extraction and under what conditions. It has been operating under 1993 rules, which Hart described as outdated.
“This [update] is something we’ve been pushing on for a long time,” he said.
The 1993 leasing availability decision projected that no more than 23 gas wells would be drilled in the White River National Forest by 2013. The agency didn’t anticipate the gas boom that hit Garfield County in the middle 2000s. There are now 82 wells on forest lands and approvals for scores more, according to Forest Service officials.
An updated “reasonable, foreseeable development scenario” envisions between 903 and 1,004 wells drilled in the forest over the next 20 years, utilizing up to 169 pads, said David Francomb, Forest Service project team leader.
“That’s a projection of what we could be seeing,” he said. “Those numbers don’t mean we will see that level of development.”
The projections will be used for the agency’s planning and review, called an environmental impact statement.
In the broader Forest Service proposal, 266,600 acres of the forest will be administratively available for oil and gas development. That is about 11 percent of the total forest.
Another 1.16 million acres would be closed to leasing through management, but energy companies could apply for a change. “We would have to do some additional study,” Francomb said.
The remaining 857,500 acres in the forest are legally closed to oil and gas drilling because they are specially protected, such as Wilderness.
Francomb said the acres of land available and off-limits for leasing didn’t change much from 1993. The big change from the 1993 plan is the use of no-surface occupancy on roadless lands.
Fitzwilliams said the 141,000 acres of roadless lands where the no-surface occupancy rules will be applied are within the 266,600 acres available for leasing. In effect, it means some amount of land less than 266,600 acres will be available for drilling.
The Forest Service couldn’t simply prohibit leasing of roadless lands. Parts of the forest identified as having a high potential for natural gas must be made available for leasing, as long as they aren’t Wilderness. Much of the Thompson Creek land is considered a high-occurrence area.
However, the land managers can set the conditions for drilling. Fitzwilliams said his team consulted with regional leasing experts before proposing the new rules. The agency felt the no-surface occupancy stipulation was warranted on the roadless lands.
“How do you protect the roadless values if you don’t do this?” Fitzwilliams said.
He declined to answer if he expects a challenge from the gas industry. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association didn’t return a message seeking comment.
The Forest Service will hold a public open house on its proposal Wednesday, July 14, from 2:30 to 8 p.m., at the BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office located at 2300 River Frontage Road in Silt. The agency will accept public comment through July 30.
More public comment will be accepted when the draft environmental impact statement is released, probably in winter 2011.
More information about the planning process and the opportunity to comment is available at http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/projects/.
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