Around 40 people attended a peaceful protest over the planned drilling of an exploratory well in the controversial Thompson Divide area on Tuesday morning. The event coincided with a site visit by U.S. Forest Service personnel looking to gauge what impacts extraction would have on the land, water, vegetation and wildlife.
Concerned citizens of all stripes including ranchers, hikers, conservationists and others joined members of the media as White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams discussed the process being undertaken by Houston-based energy company SG Interests in its attempt to drill the well.
The area has long been embroiled in a tug-of-war between conservationists who say it is too precious to allow the ravages of extraction, and an industry that owns valid leases allowing the right to drill for subterranean minerals.
Just last week, SG had asked that the Forest Service to close the public road to keep the protestors out of the area during the site visit, but Fitzwilliams turned the request down.
Members of the local conservation groups Wilderness Workshop and Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) camped out at the site on Monday, to emphasize out how popular the location is with outdoor enthusiasts.
The site of the proposed well is in a meadow that local ranchers utilize for cattle grazing, and is located just adjacent to a popular camping area, especially among hunters.
The sloping nature of the location provides vast views of the surrounding wilderness, attracting many to picnic, ride bicycles, or hike nearby.
Mother Nature herself ultimately ended the site visit a bit early with an ominous thunderstorm and ground lightning moving into the area, but not before Forest Service staff answered dozens of public questions.
Gas reserves needed to cover local demand
Fitzwilliams explained that SourceGas, which is leaseholder and operator of the 12,000-acre Wolf Creek Natural Gas Storage Area boundary, stores natural gas underground in the area for later use. But it issued a sublease to SG allowing the energy company to apply to drill an exploratory well to search for natural gas beneath the storage area in the Mancos shale layer below.
SourceGas doesn’t have the capacity in winter to feed the entire Roaring Fork Valley’s need for gas, largely because of the expansive homes, heated driveways, and ski areas near Aspen, so it needs the reserve, Fitzwilliams said.
“They inject it all summer, and then when it starts getting cold, they can put it in the gas pipes that are strewn throughout this area,” he said. “It would be interesting to see the reaction of Aspen if we told them we didn’t have enough gas.”
Much of the Thompson Divide, a large area roughly between Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and McClure Pass, was ruled off limits to new development in December, when a Forest Service draft record of decision halted future leasing for oil and gas extraction activities in the majority of the White River National Forest.
But since the Wolf Creek lease has been in production since the 1960s, this proposal is not bound by that decision, Fitzwilliams clarified.
Zane Kessler, executive director for the TDC, noted that information about SG’s sublease with SourceGas has yet to be disclosed, even though the energy company is seeking to extract a public resource.
“At what point will the public be able to see how much SG paid for the sublease, for example?” he inquired. “The agreement between SG and SourceGas has not been made public, but these are public minerals.”
Tim Abing, senior geologist for the Forest Service, said that paperwork to see the lease would have to be filed with the Bureau of Land Management.
But Kessler said that the TDC has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the BLM, but that they have been denied because the BLM says it’s an exchange of proprietary information.
“[This] is frustrating for the public, because they are public minerals. They belong to us, and ultimately we should have a say in the process,” he said.
Biologists, ecologists, geologists, engineers, recreation planners, grazing experts, archaeologists, hydrologists and other Forest Service staff, as well as representatives of SG Interests, conducted the site visit to assess potential impacts that the well could have on the area, which lies just over the border of Pitkin and Garfield counties in Mesa County.
“What they’re doing is working with [SG] to see exactly where they are going to place the well, where exactly they are going to access the well, and obviously the road to get into it,” Fitzwilliams said. “The work they’re doing today is not going to answer all the questions, what the effects are, how it would affect wildlife. It’s really just information gathering. [Site visits are] usually quite low key, but nothing in the Thompson Divide is low key.”
Following the site visit, SG will likely file an “application for permit to drill an oil and gas well.” The Forest Service would then have to conduct a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis such as an environmental assessment.
“Usually for just an exploratory well it’s a year-long process or less. I suspect this might take longer. There might be a few public comments I have to go through, and other things,” Fitzwilliams said with a wry smile.
The well pad area would be close to four acres, Abing said, adding that there wouldn’t be any tall structures in place at the site, and reclamation work would need to be conducted by SG for any land it isn’t utilizing for the well.
“If a discovery is made, they might have some processing equipment on site, but then they would reclaim the portions of the pad that they wouldn’t need. So it would shrink up to a relatively small area, maybe down to an acre and a half, I’m guessing,” Abing said. “So it will be much smaller than the initial disturbances for the drilling of the well.
SG Interests filed a “notice of staking” in late July with the Bureau of Land Management, a precursor to filing a request to drill a well. The application notes that the estimated well depth would be 9,000 feet, and a 200- to 400-foot-long road would need to be constructed for access.
Fitzwilliams added that overall he was very proud of how well the forest looks even with its mixed use including the extraction activities of the oil and gas and timber industries.
Concerns over drilling
Citizen concerns ranged from whether or not the proposed well would be the first of many in the area, to impacts from excessive traffic, and if fluids associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would be injected into the ground and taint the surrounding water supply.
But Fitzwilliams said that even if SG “hits paydirt” with the exploratory well, it would have to cap it and then submit a master development plan before taking gas out of the ground.
“On one extreme, they could drill the well, it could come up a duster, they’d cap it and go home,” he said. “On the other extreme, it comes up with a ton of pressure and all the good data, and they come back with a master development plan, which I think is all of your concerns.”
The process of drilling the well could take about three weeks, Fitzwilliams said, but added that in the past he’s made companies truck fracking fluid out of the WRNF.
“I’ve refrained from allowing that,” he said. “There’s a lot of questions that are yet unanswered. I’ve denied those requests so far.”
Glenwood Springs and Garfield County have reiterated their opposition to allowing SG to use Four Mile Road or the city’s streets as a haul route, so an alternate access to the well site would need to be discovered.
Marj Perry and husband Bill Fales have been ranchers in the area for decades, and their 900 cattle graze in the area where the well is planned.
Perry called the proposed well site the “lunch spot” for the animals, and Fales added that the meadows is where cows and their calves find each other, and pair up before moving to another pasture.
“We kind of let them settle here, and make sure the cows have their calves,” he said. “It’s a nice meadow where they are happy, and they settle down. … The cows won’t pair up and settle down here with this going on. It will definitely have a negative impact on the grazing operation.”
Ants in his pants
In a moment of levity, Fitzwilliams announced that he had been standing on an ant hill while answering questions, and the insects had swarmed up his legs and were biting him.
“The irony of standing in an ant nest does not escape me,” he said to a round of laughter. “I’m standing here getting bitten by these little boogers, and I think that’s ironic.”
Will Roush, conservation director for Wilderness Workshop, jokingly offered Fitzwilliams a “We love Thompson Divide” placard and said if he was holding the sign they would leave him alone.
Another man from the crowd then told Fitzwilliams that he was just experiencing the ants’ public input.
“No kidding right?” he replied. “Right from the ground. … They’re biting me in the neck, and I’m going to move somewhere else.”