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Colorado: White River NF to update oil and gas leasing plan

Draft environmental study open for 60-day public comment period

A map from the draft EIS shows areas with surface-use stipulations in one of the plan’s alternatives. Courtesy White River National Forest. Click on the map to see the draft study, including all the maps, online.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A draft environmental study for a new oil and gas leasing plan on the White River National Forest includes alternatives that cut the amount of land available from 416,000 acres to about 260,000 acres and outlines strict stipulations for drilling activities, especially in roadless areas, where no surface occupancy would be permitted.

The draft study is open for a 60-day comment period. After another round of input, Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will choose from the options outlined in the draft for a final plan. The revision will have no impact on existing leases, Fitzwilliams said.

“A vital part of the planning process for this complex and controversial project is to gather public input.  The DEIS lays out four alternatives for consideration, which were developed after analyzing public comments during initial outreach efforts,” said Fitzwilliams.  “Now we are ready to listen to public comment again as we move into the next phase of this process.”

Conservation advocates were cautiously optimistic about the draft study, while the energy industry reacted critically, calling the alternatives overly restrictive.

“If we aspire as a nation to an all of the above energy policy, then in the coming months our organization has a responsibility to help the agency fix this plan,” said David Ludlam, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Currently, it offers a none of the above choice.

“The West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association commented during scoping that the plan’s new regulations, restrictions, stipulations and closures make responsible energy development unworkable, and in some cases, impossible,” Ludlam said. “There is still an opportunity to fix it, and we’ll work as hard as we can to help the administration see why it’s important for our economy to do so.”

Ludlam said seasonal restrictions, special lease stipulations, no surface occupancy and other special land use designations overlap to create a difficult operating environment.

“And to some degree, I don’t think anyone, including the agency, is shy about acknowledging that this outcome was part of the intent,” he said. “The story of America’s natural gas and oil industry is extraordinary in that what is impossible today is probable tomorrow through technology. So eliminating leasable lands of “moderate potential” on the pre-text that resource development might be unlikely ignores the history of technology and the can-do approach of our engineers.”

Peter Hart, a conservation advocate with the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said it’s important for the Forest Service to consider how oil and gas development fits in with other uses on the country’s most-visited national forest, and said the study must also consider how energy development on adjacent BLM lands fit into the picture.

“We’re already starting to see degradation of air quality and wildlife habitat from that,” Hart said.

“It may appear that we have chosen to close, through management direction, 1.2 million acres …but it’s a chunk of the forest that has no oil and gas,” Fitzwilliams said, adding that there’s no need to spend time and money doing an environmental analysis in those areas where there’s been absolutely no interest from the energy industry.

Some areas, including wilderness and ski areas, are automatically excluded from oil and gas leasing consideration, and under the proposed alternative, all roadless areas would have a no-surface-occupancy stipulation. That means energy companies could drill horizontally from outside the roadless areas, where no roads or well pads would be permitted. That becomes significant considering that of the 260,000 acres open for leasing, 141,000 are roadless.

Fitzwilliams said he expects more input from other agencies during the comment phase, including the Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

The new plan updates a 1993 version with new information based on  changing conditions such as technological advances in oil and gas exploration and development.  Highlights of the DEIS include:

Highlights:

  • Attaches No Surface Occupancy (NSO), Controlled Surface Use (CSU), and Timing Limitation (TL) lease stipulations, where needed on future leases, for the purpose of protecting surface resources;
  • Changes the 1993 leasing decision that identifies 1,215,777 acres (approximately 53 percent) as closed for oil and gas leasing through management direction.
  • Changes the 1993 leasing decision to identify 800,555 acres (approximately 35 percent) as legally closed for oil and gas leasing;

The Forest Service is asking for public comment by Oct. 31, 2012 Please address your comments to Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Supervisor, White River National Forest, P.O. Box 1919, Sacramento, CA 95812; E-mail comments to: WRNFoilangascomments@fscomments.org; Faxed comments to: 916-456-6742.  Comments should include: (1) name, address, telephone number, organization represented, if any; (2) title of the document on which the comment is being submitted (White River National Forest Draft Oil and Gas Leasing EIS); and (3) specific facts and supporting reasons for the Responsible Official to consider.

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