About a half hour into a briefing with activists and reporters Tuesday morning to explain the process of studying a proposed natural gas test well high up in the Thompson Divide west of Carbondale, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams got a little antsy.
It wasn’t that he was nervous about some of the questions he was fielding. It had to do with the fact that he’d just realized he was standing on top of an ant hill.
“The irony of stepping into an ant’s nest here has not escaped me,” Fitzwilliams quipped, as he brushed ants from his pant legs and sleeves.
“These things are normally pretty low key,” he said of the typically routine site visits to get an initial look at an area where any lease-based activity is proposed in the national forest, from oil and gas drilling to logging to outfitting.
“But nothing in the Thompson Divide is low key,” Fitzwilliams said, explaining the visit was a time for Forest Service specialists to ask their questions and begin to assess the proposal, rather than to answer specific questions about mitigation or whether drilling in the area is even appropriate.
As some members and supporters of the Thompson Divide Coalition and the Wilderness Workshop listened intently and asked their questions of Fitzwilliams, others walked along and observed as Forest Service personnel joined representatives from Houston-based SG Interests across Forest Road 300, where the proposed well would be located.
“This is our lunch spot,” said Marj Perry, who with her husband, Bill Fales, and other members of the Perry, Nieslanik and several other ranching families run their cattle up out of Middle Thompson and Four Mile creeks.
“Once we get the cows rounded up, this is where we sit down and have lunch,” Perry said, surveying the open meadow that also serves as a popular hunting camp in the fall and year-round backcountry recreation area.
‘GOING TO RUIN THE GODDANG COUNTRY’
It’s also the headwaters for much of the field irrigation and ultimately drinking water in downstream communities such as Carbondale, not to mention critical big game habitat.
“They’re going to ruin the goddang country up here if they hit gas,” added Marty Nieslanik, who came up with his dad, longtime Carbondale rancher John Nieslanik, to find out more about SG’s official “notice of staking” for a test well within the 12,000-acre Wolf Creek gas storage area.
It’s the first step in the process for SG to eventually seek an application to drill a test well which, if approved and successful, could lead to more large-scale natural gas production in the future.
Nieslanik pointed over the hillside to the west and said he has seen several moose that inhabit the region. It’s also prime grazing land, and he’s just not convinced oil and gas production, ranching and other uses mix in such a remote, relatively untouched area.
But that meadow sits right in the middle of the Wolf Creek gas storage unit, which has existed as a natural gas production and storage site since the 1950s. Natural gas utility SourceGas uses the area to gather and store natural gas that is produced elsewhere, and distribute to area communities, including Aspen, as needed during peak periods.
‘STANDING IN A GAS FIELD’
Deep beneath the storage area are also long-held drilling rights for natural gas resources that lie within the Mancos formation. A few years ago, SG Interests purchased those rights from SourceGas and is now looking to develop them.
“You’re standing in a gas field,” said Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG, who was on hand for the site visit providing information about the company’s proposal. “It’s not a producing field now, but it is a storage field and it has been for a very long time.
“This is just the first step in a long process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for public input,” he said.
The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition, the latter of which has been working for several years to try to prevent drilling in the region, organized a campout Monday night in order to greet the Forest Service and industry personnel.
“I counted over 40 people up here,” said Will Roush, conservation director for the Wilderness Workshop. “For a Tuesday morning when most everyone has a job, to come up here and show how important this place is, I think that says a lot.”
The lease in question is not part of the Bureau of Land Management’s ongoing environmental re-analysis of 64 leases on the White River National Forest, including those elsewhere in the Thompson Divide, for which an Environmental Impact Statement is expected this fall.
The area in question is not far from Sunlight Mountain Resort near where the Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa county lines come together south of Glenwood Springs.
The lease is among those offered up by SG as part of a proposed lease exchange that would involving giving up leasing rights in the Thompson Divide for new leases farther to the west in Mesa County. Such an exchange would require congressional action.