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Forest helps meet U.S. energy needs

Maribeth Gustafson

The White River National Forest has a relatively long history in natural gas leasing and associated exploration and development, and we are seeing an increase in activity that is unlike any level the forest has experienced before.

The mission of the Forest Service is caring for the land and serving people. This means conserving natural resources and providing resources to meet the needs of our growing country. The White River National Forest provides resources such as livestock grazing, timber, and oil and gas leases to provide fuel for heating homes and powering vehicles.

The 1920 Mineral Leasing Act promotes development of oil and gas and other minerals on public lands. In addition, the 1970 Mining and Minerals Policy Act directs the federal government to encourage and administer orderly exploration and development of mineral and energy resources on public lands to meet the nations needs. The 2005 Energy Policy encourages, among other things, reduced dependence on foreign sources of energy and increased domestic production. The White River National Forest is committed to helping meet the energy needs of the country in an environmentally viable manner.

Not all lands are suitable for mineral leasing. In 1993, the White River prepared an Environmental Impact Statement that designated specific forest lands suitable for oil and gas leasing. The 2002 revision of the Forest Plan further restricts some areas from new leasing, such as recommended wilderness and areas suitable for wild and scenic river designation. The areas that we can and must lease have already been determined ” it is no longer a question of if, it is a question of when and where and how we can manage them most effectively in compliance with environmental regulations.

Oil and gas leasing is currently allowed in roadless areas; however, the 1993 Oil and Gas EIS placed a no surface occupancy stipulation on some of these areas that were identified as available for lease. No surface occupancy means the area is restricted from surface-disturbing activities like construction of roads or placement of drilling rigs. This allows industry to extract oil and gas resources from underneath lands using directional drilling without ever disturbing the surface. NSOs are often put into place to protect sensitive animal or plant habitat or because topography would not be conducive to surface occupancy.

When an area is designated as suitable and available for oil and gas leasing on national forest system lands, either through current laws and regulations, the forest plan or other NEPA documentation such as the oil and gas leasing EIS, interested companies may submit lease parcel requests for a lease parcel to the Bureau of Land Management state office. The BLM forwards the information to the Forest Service regional office. The regional office ensures the parcel is consistent with the forest plan and is compliant with applicable environmental analysis decisions for leasing. The regional office may also recommend conducting an environmental analysis to address any new or changed circumstances. Once found compliant, the Forest Service documents the parcel as ready for leasing and sends it back to the BLM state office to be put on a sale list. The lease may be sold to the highest bidder at the next quarterly BLM auction.

A lessee then has a right to explore and develop its lease, subject to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws, policies and regulations. To develop a lease, the lessee must file an Application for Permit to Drill with the BLM. The APD consists of a drilling plan, Surface Use Plan of Operations and a reclamation plan. The White River National Forest conducts on-site reviews of the proposed access roads and well sites, and attaches site specific terms and conditions to protect natural resources. In addition to lease stipulation, conditions may prohibit work in sensitive areas, including certain wildlife habitats, or restrict activities during certain seasons such as winter range areas for elk and deer.

Currently most of the oil and gas exploration and development activity on the forest occurs on the Rifle and Sopris ranger districts ” areas north and south of Interstate 70 around the towns of Rifle, Silt, New Castle and Glenwood Springs, and east and west of Highway 82 around Carbondale. The Blanco Ranger District near Meeker may eventually see oil and natural gas exploration and development. With the demand for more oil and gas driving industry to explore and produce more, and the market value increasing, development on the forest is expected to increase in areas previously less economically viable for industry to lease because of access and location.

Ultimately, we cannot prohibit natural gas drilling on public lands. We can manage surface activity to effectively coexist with other uses and to conserve long-term natural resource values.


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