State BLM officials call for new studies on Mesa County project
Conservation groups and community advocates in western Colorado have slowed the fracking juggernaut at least temporarily, as federal land managers last week decided to redo an environmental study for a controversial plan to drill 108 new wells on 52,000 acres near the Grand Mesa. Under the proposed master development plan, the wells could produce up to 8.7 million barrels of oil over the next 20 years.
The agency said it made the decision based on the fact that the environmental study for the fossil fuel development project didn’t include any analysis of hydraulic fracturing, likely because of some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the developers and Bureau of Land Management officials. But when the Western Colorado Congress and the Western Environmental Law Center challenged the plan, state BLM officials reversed course.
“After careful consideration of the proposed development in the Whitewater MDP … it is clear that the development cannot occur without some form of hydraulic fracturing,” Deputy State Director for Energy, Lands and Minerals Lonny Bagley, wrote in his letter to the groups.
“As an impacted landowner in Whitewater, I am mighty glad the BLM is taking a harder look at this proposal,” said rancher and Western Colorado Congress member Don Lumbardy. “My ranch depends on the water from the springs in this area, and I have a well that I rely on for drinking water, so I was troubled about possible impacts to my livelihood and property.”
Fram Exploration filed a master development plan for the project in 2010, initially planning to drill for natural gas, then switching gears after finding oil. Under the plan, the Norwegian-owned company wanted to drill 108 vertical wells, then expand into horizontal drilling, all in an area with potential impacts to residential and agricultural water supplies in Mesa County.
Potential fracking impacts were included in a draft study but were later removed. Conservation groups say leaked emails show that the decision to remove the fracking info was based on Fram’s representation that it had no immediate plans for fracking.
The emails also show that a contractor working for the BLM suggested that the agency could later streamline the permitting for fracking, avoiding the detailed environmental studies required under federal environmental laws.
But in updated plans, Fram indicated that there would be fracking right off the bat.
“The BLM made an error when it omitted any analysis of fracking,” said Laura King, attorney with the Western Environmental law Center. “We are grateful BLM has now acknowledged its error and will go back to get it right. However, we will be following this project closely to ensure that all necessary analysis is completed before any further leasing and development is allowed to occur in Grand Junction’s and Palisade’s water and airsheds.”
After the initial BLM approval in 2014, residents filed a request for Colorado State Director Ruth Welch to review the project’s National Environmental Protection Act documentation as an alternative to litigation. As a result of this administrative engagement, the BLM state director will send the plan back to the Grand Junction Field Office for further environmental analysis, with specific instructions to look at its fracking impacts.
“The BLM has done the right thing in reassessing Fram’s drilling proposal,” said Karen Sjoberg of Citizens for Clean Air. “We found the original project plans flawed in both process and substance. More than a hundred oil wells on the Grand Mesa have the potential to adversely affect an already problematic wintertime air inversion, as well as a rising ozone level during the summer months, and area residents deserve a closer look at air quality effects.”
“Mesa and Delta county community groups came together to hold BLM accountable to a rigorous environmental analysis of this large drilling proposal,” said Wayne “Wano” Urbonas, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This is a good day for citizen-based watchdogs fighting irresponsible oil and gas development.”
“Residents in this area have legitimate concerns about impacts to our air and water, and we finally feel like we are being heard. It’s time to have an adult conversation about this project and give our concerns the in-depth analysis they deserve. I look forward to having that conversation with the BLM,” Lumbardy concluded.