Wilderness vs. energy: battle brews over pipeline | AspenTimes.com

Wilderness vs. energy: battle brews over pipeline

Joel Stonington
Aspen, CO Colorado

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

A proposal to build a pipeline through 8.3 miles of inventoried roadless areas is spawning a battle that cuts to the heart of the conflict between wilderness campaigns and America’s energy industry.

Environmental and hunting groups have teamed up to oppose a proposed pipeline that would cut a permanent 50-foot swath through three roadless areas, Clear Creek, Bald Mountain and East Willow, all southwest of Carbondale in the White River National Forest and Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests.

Roadless areas are the necessary precursor to wilderness designation by Congress, a goal of some of the environmental groups that argue that building a new pipeline would be illegal under what is known as the Clinton rule, a law against building new roads in inventoried roadless areas.

“The Clinton roadless rule prohibits the construction of roads even if they are temporary,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. “Not only is it illegal, it’s bad landscape ecology planning. You don’t bifurcate large wildlife corridors with disturbances like this.”

The joint proposal for the 25.5-mile pipeline comes from a Dallas company, SG Interests and Gunnison Energy, a subsidiary of the Oxbow Corporation.

“The pipeline right-of-way is not a road, it is considered a right-of-way,” said Brad Robinson, president of Gunnison Energy. “It comes into the definitions of roads under the Clinton rule.”

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The Forest Service identified the route through the roadless areas as the preferred route, in opposition to alternate, longer routes that would not cut through the areas.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife wrote a letter opposing the chosen route, noting that it “had the most negative impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitats of all four routes which we analyzed.”

Robinson said that his company would prefer the route with the least impact and that it will abide with the decision of the Forest Service. He said the alternative 38-mile and 32-mile routes were not cost prohibitive but that the shorter route made sense and was what the Forest Service chose.

Robinson said the impacts of the new pipeline would be nominal because of an existing 5-inch pipeline and because of revegetation following initial construction.

“This particular roadless area has 31 miles of roads, [seven] producing natural gas wells …” Robinson said. “It’s not obvious to us how following the existing natural gas corridor is a problem.”

The Forest Service has already published a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) and is expected to come out with a final EIS concurrent with a decision from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the governmental agency in charge of public mineral rights.

Shoemaker said the BLM expects to make a decision around first of the year. However, construction on the new pipeline is allowed to begin immediately after the decision, something that concerns Shoemaker and the environmental coalition.

Perhaps the biggest issue for the Department of Wildlife and the environmental groups is that the pipeline would bifurcate the 120,000-acre Clear Fork Divide, called crucial habitat for big game and an extremely popular hunting area.

The Forest Service acknowledged, in the draft environmental statement that “pipeline right-of-way construction and right-of-way grant could alter roadless character in inventoried roadless areas due to initial land disturbance and long-term appearance of a linear pipeline right-of-way.”

Though Robinson said the construction right-of-way would only be 100 feet, the appendix to the draft environmental impact statement showed a right of way that could extend out to 200 feet if needed. Similarly, the size of the pipeline is on an as-needed basis.

“This is an area that we only have one chance to put a pipeline in,” Robinson said. “You have to guess on the size. So you have to put in the biggest pipe you think you’ll ever need. Because we’re on National Forest lands, we know we’ll never be able to go back and install another pipeline. We’ll put in the biggest pipeline we think we’ll ever use. It’s not clear we’ll ever fill it up.”