ASPEN DAILY NEWS 8-12-16 Environmentalists urge protections

Aug 12, 2016

Environmentalists urge stricter protections on Divide

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer


Representatives of Wilderness Workshop and Trout Unlimited said Thursday they’re hopeful the Bureau of Land Management will tweak its recent decision about leases for gas and oil drilling between Carbondale and Battlement Mesa to include more restrictions on industry.

Wilderness Workshop and EcoFlight hosted a flight over the area for journalists after the BLM last month moved to cancel 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area outside Carbondale. The purpose was to show how Thompson Divide flows into several roadless areas to the west, including Thompson Creek, Baldy Mountain and East Willow, and the industry’s inactivity on leased well pads.

While the BLM, in its final preferred alternative for the environmental impact statement (EIS) governing those areas, canceled the 25 Thompson Divide leases, the agency rolled back protections in the areas to the west, where there are 27 gas and oil leases, that had been included in the preliminary EIS, said Will Roush, conservation director of Wilderness Workshop.

“Those leases have the same types of value in terms of roadless and wildlife habitat as a lot of spots in the Thompson Divide,” he said. “In our perspective, they’re just as deserving of protection.”

Tyler Baskfield, Colorado sportsmen coordinator for Trout Unlimited, agreed, saying that native populations of cutthroat trout and big-game habitat enjoyed by hunters would be aided by added protection. He cited as beneficial prohibitions on industry practices like surface occupancy in roadless areas, meaning extraction firms can access the subterranean natural gas but cannot impact the topsoil; and controlled surface use, a timing stipulation so industry doesn’t impact things like elk-calving season.

The EIS was entered into the federal register on Aug. 5, and the BLM has a minimum of 30 days to issue its final ruling, called a record of decision.

The time has passed for Wilderness Workshop and other groups to appeal the BLM’s decision.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight
Inactive well pads for natural-gas drilling between Carbondale and Battlement Mesa, photographed during a fly-over Thursday hosted by EcoFlight and Wilderness Workshop.

“We’re talking with the BLM and asking our members to write” the agency, Roush said, acknowledging, however, that it is tough to change the minds of agency decision-makers at this point.

The flight took reporters over miles and miles of spectacular cliffs above green expanses that are interrupted in many places by well pads and roads. Little industrial activity was evident.

Other areas were utter wilderness, containing huge spans of aspen and pine trees. But Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation analyst and staff attorney, noted on the flight the encroachment of industry not far away. That led to his organization’s vehement efforts against such use and the formation of the Thompson Divide Coalition, also a formidable voice against oil and gas development in the namesake area.

As in the Thompson Divide, concerns about industry uses on the 27 leases to the west include air and water pollution. Roush said energy development involves building “a bunch of mini-industrial sites” that include diesel generators, roads — which leads to habitat fragmentation — truck trips, holding tanks and evaporation ponds.

It’s extensive development for wells that may only have a 30-year life, Hart said.

In the past decade, there have been many developments in conservation areas to better protect, for instance, aquatic resources. But “a lot of these leases are 20 years old, and they just don’t have adequate protections,” he said.

Roush added that some leases are immediately adjacent to streams because that was the easiest place for a gas firm to put a well pad. A stipulation could call for drill sites to be located slightly farther away to protect the waterway from potential spills and sediment from building the pad itself.

“We’re not asking for the world,” he said. “Let’s just not put it right next to a stream.”

Roush reiterated that the BLM decision to cancel the leases in the Thompson Divide was a significant victory.

“I think it’s a recognition of all the community support for protecting this area and the values that are there in terms of wildlife habitat,” he said. “On the whole, I think this is a good direction the BLM is going in. We’re just trying to make it as good of a decision as possible.”