Surge in gas exploration expected in local forest |

Surge in gas exploration expected in local forest

Aspen Times writer

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series detailing natural gas drilling plans in Pitkin County. Monday’s article focused on EnCana Oil and Gas’ application for an exploratory well outside Carbondale. Today’s story details By Scott CondonAspen Times Staff WriterIf all the economically recoverable natural gas were extracted from roadless areas of the White River National Forest, such as Thompson Creek outside of Carbondale, it would sate U.S. thirst for only about 56 hours, according to an analysis by the Wilderness Society.That’s why a coalition of conservation groups is fighting desperately to try to block the federal government from leasing public lands. They contend the small benefit to be gained from tapping into modest reserves like those in roadless areas of the White River National Forest would be more than offset by the ecological damage.”Why trash these last wild places?” asked Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop. “We’re talking about a finite energy source here.”That same argument is being used to try to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The oil and gas industry, and drilling proponents in Congress, counter that while individual sites provide only a small amount of necessary supply they combine to ease some of the U.S. dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels.While the White River National Forest is just a small player in the national arena, administrators expect significant increases in oil and gas development, especially given the Bush administration’s directive to increase domestic oil and gas production.’Busy years ahead’ in forestThe Forest Service made an additional 77,320 acres of the White River National Forest available for oil and gas leasing in 2003. That pushes the total acreage open for oil and gas development to 132,934, according to the annual report for the forest.”Based on proposals received in 2003, it appears that the Forest may be in store for many busy years ahead,” the annual report predicted.The Rifle district approved two drilling projects that will probably result in four natural gas wells this year. It began issuing permits for three other projects that will result in 15 wells on seven well pads, the annual report said.”People need to understand [that] exploration and production is another valid use of public lands,” said Larry Sandoval, oil and gas administrator for the White River National Forest.Activity on forest land is creeping closer to the Roaring Fork Valley. EnCana Oil and Gas, which has 775 active gas wells in Garfield County, is seeking permission to drill an exploratory well in national forest within Pitkin County, about 12 miles southwest of Carbondale. EnCana wants to poke around what’s called the Wolf Creek storage field.Wolf Creek was the site of natural gas production from 1960 to 1972. Since then it’s been used for storage. Gas produced farther to the west is sent to the Wolf Creek field by pipeline. It is stored there in vast underground vaults and used during winter by towns in the Roaring Fork Valley. Gas leases have also been snatched in the Thompson Creek roadless area, rugged land southwest of Carbondale and adjacent to where EnCana wants to explore. While there haven’t been any applications to drill in Thompson Creek yet, it may be inevitable.Company spokesman Walter Lowry declined last week to confirm or deny that EnCana had leased land in Thompson Creek “due to the competitive nature of our business.”High potential in Thompson CreekAn analysis by the Wilderness Society, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, estimated that 33 billion cubic feet of economically recoverable natural gas lies beneath the rugged terrain of Thompson Creek. That’s about 80 percent of what is technically recoverable from the same area. The Wilderness Society makes the distinction because not all the gas that is technically recoverable can be extracted profitably.The report assumed that gas prices would remain at the high end of the range, as they have for the past few years. That makes it more feasible to pursue gas in areas where production costs are high.To put the estimated Thompson Creek reserves in perspective, the Wolf Creek field produced about 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas during its 12 years of production, according to Lowry. He said that amount of production would qualify Wolf Creek as a small field.Thompson Creek has nearly three times as much gas as was produced in Wolf Creek. However, that still wouldn’t qualify it as a large field when compared to the Mamm Creek field south of Silt and Rifle.One part of the Mamm Creek field, Divide Creek, has wells that produce more than 1.5 million cubic feet per day.Gauging the potentialNatural gas reserves throughout roadless areas of the White River National Forest total an estimated 145 billion cubic feet, according to the Wilderness Society study. That would meet U.S. demand for 56 hours at current consumption rates. Thompson Creek itself has enough supply to satisfy national demand for 12 1/2 hours.Conservation groups such as the Aspen Wilderness Workshop and the Wilderness Society want the Forest Service to keep gas companies out of roadless areas. They claim that land is better suited for wildlife habitat than gas development.As of 2002, gas and oil production had affected only 200 acres of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. Existing wilderness areas – like Snowmass-Maroon Bells, Collegiate Peaks and Hunter-Fryingpan, which surround Aspen – are off-limits even if they hold reserves. In addition, climate and topography make forest lands less attractive.”National Forest System lands are higher and also steeper and generally more remote,” says a summary of the White River National Forest land-use plan. “Drillers are likely to first seek lower, drier and flatter lands.”Nevertheless, Melanie Holm, program manager for leaseable minerals for the Forest Service’s regional office in Lakewood, said it is reasonable to expect growing interest from gas companies on the part of the forest that’s on the eastern edge of what’s known as the Piceance Basin. Those forest lands are west of Redstone and Carbondale and south of Interstate 70.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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