GRAND JUNCTION SENTINEL 8-12-16 Next gas battle shaping up

Aug 12, 2016

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Natural gas well pads on private lands, including one pad with a workover rig operating on it, are visible in the left portion of this photo, which also depicts some of the roadless acreage in the Mamm Peak area that is leased for oil and gas development and conservationists are seeking to have better protected. They say well pads should be kept off roadless areas and at least some of the gas below it can be tapped by drilling directionally or horizontally from adjacent pads on private land or other federal land. Photo by Dean Humphrey

Viewed from above, there’s little to differentiate the national forest that a coalition has fought hard to protect from oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale from the highlands continuing all the way to south of De Beque.

The landscape looks to be all of one piece, probably even more so if you’re a bear, elk, deer, lynx or any of the number of other animals that gravitate to this country of aspen, spruce and headwaters for numerous creeks.

That includes moose, occupants of an EcoFlight airplane trip piloted by Bruce Gordon observed Thursday. They were speaking just seconds before passenger Kara Armano, who works for the Backbone Media marketing/media relations company in Carbondale, spied two dark, large animals in a forest opening below her. They looked almost certainly to be moose, appearing as if on cue.

From an animal’s perspective, and from the perspective of people like Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop conservation group, this stretch of White River National Forest from De Beque to Carbondale is a single landscape. And while Hart and other conservationists are thrilled to see the BLM moving to protect the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development, they say wildlife habitat is in danger of being chopped up by well pads, roads and pipelines in the forest west of Thompson Divide if oil and gas development goes forward without further restrictions placed on it.

Instead, said Hart, “We need more (habitat) connectivity on a landscape scale.”

The Bureau of Land Management is planning to cancel 25 oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area. It’s acting as part of an environmental review of 65 leases generally falling within this Carbondale-to-De Beque area that Gordon showed media from above on a clear and windless Thursday morning. The BLM undertook the review due to a failure to do such a review, or adopt an environmental review done by the Forest Service, before the leases were issued.

It recently released a final environmental impact statement with a preferred alternative under which it would cancel the 25 Thompson Divide leases. It also would impose new stipulations on 13 other leases that energy companies have yet to begin developing. But the BLM reversed its initial proposal to also impose the new stipulations on 27 other leases that already are considered to be producing.

Hart says the Thompson Divide leases are part of a larger landscape that ought to be treated consistently when it comes to stipulations such as barring well pads in roadless areas. Such a requirement would mean oil and gas beneath those areas would have to be reached by drilling directionally or horizontally from adjacent private or federal lands.

Gordon, too, sees no reason why the land covered by the 27 leases deemed to be producing should be treated differently from where the 25 leases are in Thompson Divide.

“They have the same kind of values as when you look at Thompson Divide,” he said, pointing to the large amount of roadless areas the leases overlap.

“It’s an equally important landscape, I think.”

“This is kind of the breadbasket of hunters in this state,” Tyler Baskfield of Trout Unlimited said of the region covered by the leases under review. Many of its creeks also are home to important Colorado cutthroat trout habitat, he added.

He said the BLM should impose protections on the leases consistent with the protections the White River National Forest has decided to incorporate for future leasing in its new oil and gas plan. Hart said these measures including things like setback requirements from streams, new wildlife protections, and no-surface-occupancy requirements for roadless areas.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency points out in its EIS the difficulty involved in changing stipulations on producing leases.

“With production on them, technically it’s difficult, legally it’s difficult,” he said.

He said the agency can only modify stipulations on leases with the agreement of a leaseholder. In the case of the 13 non-producing leases, the agency can simply cancel the leases if leaseholders reject the new stipulations. But the agency can’t cancel producing leases on its own; it would require action by a judge, Boyd said.

The BLM points to the economic impacts that would result from losing leases in production and the costs of having to plug wells and reclaim lands, including the costs associated with possible “orphan wells” that companies might walk away from, leaving the BLM to have to deal with them.

The industry has threatened legal action should the BLM proceed with canceling even the 25 Thompson Divide leases, which aren’t producing.

Of the 27 leases now of concern to environmentalists, three may go away regardless of the BLM decision in its lease review. The three are among seven that WillSource Enterprise owns in the East Willow area on the western edge of the Thompson Divide. The BLM decided that the three leases expired because of a failure by WillSource to meet certain development obligations pertaining to lease units, or groupings of leases. But Willsource appealed that decision, and the BLM decided to include the three in its lease review in case the appeal goes in WillSource’s favor.

The WillSource leases were part of the original Thompson Divide area that a group called the Thompson Divide Coalition targeted to protect from oil and gas development. But the leases are primarily in Mesa County, and legislation that U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has proposed to permanently protect the Thompson Divide from oil and gas development doesn’t include Mesa County.

But Hart still views them as other Thompson Divide lease areas just as deserving of protection as the areas proposed for cancellation. He values trips with his child to the Haystack Mountain area of East Willow, where raptors congregate and aspen groves stretch off into the distance toward Crested Butte, offering splendid fall colors.

“It’s a pretty remarkable spot,” he said.

Leases can be kept from expiring if they’re part of larger units containing wells. Boyd said two of WillSource’s seven leases have a well apiece.

Of the remaining 20 leases considered to be producing in the BLM’s review analysis, Encana has 14 leases with nine wells on one of them. Laramie Energy has four leases, with 49 wells on one lease, eight on another and two on a third.

Caerus Oil and Gas has two leases, with four wells on one and one on the other.

Altogether, Boyd said, eight of the 27 leases have well pads on them or wells reaching them from pads drilled directionally from elsewhere.

He said the BLM believes its preferred alternative strikes the right balance among the alternatives it considered.

Said Encana spokesman Doug Hock, “We oppose the addition of new stipulations on leases with existing production. From a legal standpoint, this is problematic for the reasons BLM has enumerated.”

Hart and other environmentalists object to the idea that so few wells on so few leases can dictate how the BLM is considering managing 27 leases covering more than 46 square miles of public land with roadless, wildlife, watershed and other values.

He said he doesn’t know how hard it would be to get a judge to agree to cancel leases, if companies didn’t agree to new stipulations. But he also questions how many of the 27 leases truly should be considered to be in production, noting that the two WillSource wells aren’t even producing. He believes the BLM, as it did with WillSource, can pursue further opportunities to contract units where unit obligations aren’t being met, eliminating leases in the process.

“But they’re not even considering that. They’re simply lumping all of these unitized leases in with a handful of producing leases and calling it good,” Hart said.

The BLM says even absent new lease stipulations, environmental impacts can be addressed through site-specific measures and conditions of approval when companies apply for permits to drill wells. But Hart said the agency and industry typically have taken a fairly narrow view of what types of restrictions can be imposed at that point in the process, as opposed to before leases are issued.

Environmentalists’ victories getting federal leases canceled on the Roan Plateau near Rifle, and now very likely in the case of 25 leases on the Thompson Divide, have some industry critics feeling like they’ll never be satisfied in pushing for protections for more and more land.

But environmentalists contend that companies have plenty of places to drill in the state already. Among them is Gordon, who sees the evidence of thousands of well pads from the air.

“It’s starting to look like Texas,” he said of Colorado. “We’re doing more than our part (for U.S. energy production) in my opinion.”

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