The drilling begins … |

The drilling begins …

Dennis Webb

High up a turnoff from the Silt-Collbran road, amid colorful early-fall foliage, visitors to the White River National Forest these days can find an incongruous sight.Just beyond an old cow camp up Alkali Creek (some 15 miles south of Silt; not the Alkali Creek south of New Castle), a drilling rig is now burrowing thousands of feet beneath the earth in search of natural gas.The arrival of the rig a few weeks ago reflects a new interest in natural gas development in the White River National Forest. The national forest so far has been almost a non-factor in the boom in gas production in the Garfield County-based Piceance Basin in recent years. But judging by well-permit applications, the Forest Service’s estimate of the “reasonable foreseeable” development of natural gas activity in the current WRNF management plan may soon be exceeded.That plan, only two years old, is intended to govern management of the WRNF for a 10- to 15-year period. But Rifle District Ranger Dave Silvieus said the agency does not believe drilling is legally limited to the 20 gas and three oil wells that had been projected under the plan.However, as more drilling permits are required, each application will require a site-specific environmental analysis that also considers the cumulative impacts of drilling on the forest.The projected drilling level for the WRNF was based on a 1993 oil and gas environmental analysis, but the Forest Service saw no drilling on the WRNF between then and when it started work on revising its management plan, so it didn’t revise its projections. Energy producers didn’t become interested in drilling on the forest until after the plan’s completion two years ago.”Now, it’s really starting to pick up,” Silvieus said.Up Alkali Creek, Laramie Energy of Denver has obtained permits to drill eight wells from three drilling pads, drilling some wells directionally from some of those pads.EnCana Oil and Gas has applied to drill two wells in the Mamm Peak roadless area south of Rifle.”We’re hearing loud and clear from the Wilderness Workshop” over that application, Silvieus said.The Wilderness Workshop is an Aspen-based environmental group that is among several raising concerns about renewed interest in drilling on the White River National Forest, particularly in roadless areas. Much of the opposition has centered on applications for gas leases in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale, partly due to the roadless character of much of that country.Permission already has been granted for another drilling project on West Mamm Peak.Also, up to five new wells may be drilled on Uncle Bob Mountain southeast of Silt next year. Two drilling applications have been filed there so far.In addition, Laramie Energy is talking about wanting to drill additional wells beyond the eight for which it has permits.All of the new drilling permits on the WRNF are for exploratory wells. Exploratory wells are wells drilled at least a mile from producing ones.If companies want to begin drilling wells for gas development rather than exploration on the forest, they are likely to propose larger projects, possibly of 40 wells or more, forest officials say.However, in addition to the current exploratory work, EnCana is showing an interest in further developing some old wells on Uncle Bob Mountain to improve their gas flow. Those wells were approved long ago, and the new work should result in no new surface disturbances, Silvieus said. EnCana has begun improving some existing access roads in that area.Although the public may not be used to seeing drilling on the national forest, the wells on Uncle Bob Mountain serve as reminders that such activity is hardly new, and is part of the Forest Service’s multiple-use mandate. Some 50 wells have been drilled on the White River National Forest since the 1950s, disturbing about 200 acres. Drilling occurred as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s.One well up West Divide Creek south of New Castle has been producing since the 1950s, far longer than the 20- to 30-year life span of a typical Garfield County well. Another in that same area, on Flagpole Mountain, is the highest-elevation producing natural gas well in North America, and possibly the world.Current forest maps also show gas wells that once existed in the Alkali Creek area as well. Today the only sign of them is clearings marked with posts that indicate they have been abandoned and plugged. The drilling rig operating there now is located on a previous well pad, to reduce environmental impact.Minimizing such impacts falls under the purview of the Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of issuing drilling permits on federal land, including forest land. But the Forest Service makes recommendations on how to protect the surface within reason, and Silvieus said the BLM has always honored its requests.Its recommendations can include prohibiting drilling altogether on steep slopes. Up Alkali Creek, the Forest Service obtained a prohibition of all major drilling operations between December and mid-April, to protect winter big-game habitat. The drillers also installed concrete blocks along nearby Alkali Creek, to reduce the chances of floodwaters sweeping across the drilling site and washing dirt back into the stream.The Forest Service estimates that Laramie spent about $200,000 upgrading a 4.5-mile road to the drilling area. Culvert repairs and installation of gravel should reduce erosion and make access easier for hunters and others who use the road.Laramie is employing someone to guard the entry to the road, inspecting all drilling-related vehicles to ensure they have proper firefighting equipment in case the vehicles start a wildfire, and are free of mud that could introduce weeds to the area.Silvieus said drilling workers also are required to use bear-proof trash containers.He was impressed with how clean the drilling site looked Wednesday.”I don’t even see a cigarette or gum wrapper,” he said. “That’s pretty good.””I think the site looks good,” Silvieus told Kelly Claussen, the Laramie drilling consultant who is overseeing the drilling contractor.”I hope it does,” said Claussen. “Anything you see wrong, you let me know.”However clean the site, it still looks like an anomaly in a valley of nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, amid a backdrop slope of aspen turning gold. Pickup trucks, water tanks and construction trailers line the site. A mud pit contains rock cuttings from the drill hole. Halliburton trucks provide cement for the drilling, and pallets piled high with bags of sawdust await the material’s use in helping seal underground fractures encountered during drilling.But as the drilling rig noisily churns away, cows graze nearby, seemingly little disturbed. Silvieus said the Forest Service is continuing to work with ranchers to try to make sure drilling and grazing can coexist. He said a chief issue is for Laramie to keep the mud pit fenced off so cattle don’t drink from it, endangering their health.Dirt and top soil cleared from the drilling pad sit in separate piles nearby, and will be used to grade and revegetate the site later.If the well proves productive, it will feed gas into a pipeline that runs from Carbondale to Collbran, and production facilities will remain at the site.Otherwise, only a post marker in a clearing will serve as a reminder of the massive drill rig that once probed deep below the forest’s surface there.