In advance of the Feb. 14 auction of oil/gas parcels in the North Fork Valley, local and state BLM officials made an unusual visit to elected officials in Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.
State director Helen Hanks, district manager Lori Armstrong, field manager Barb Sharrow, deputy state director Lonny Bagley, who works in the energy, lands and minerals division, and communications director Steve Hall also discussed the controversial topic with DCI staff members.
In December 2011, the BLM announced an environmental assessment was being prepared for an August 2012 oil and gas lease sale in the North Fork Valley. That sale originally contained 22 parcels totaling 29,890 acres near Paonia, Hotchkiss, Somerset and Crawford.
After receiving nearly 3,000 comments from the public both in support and in opposition, the BLM decided to defer all 22 parcels to allow time for additional environmental analysis.
In November, the BLM completed its final environmental analysis for the nominated parcels and posted a sale notice for Feb. 14. About a third of the acres were removed from the Feb. 14 lease sale, leaving 20 parcels covering 20,555 acres in the North Fork Valley. One parcel was removed because of its proximity to Crawford School; others were dropped because of concerns related to watersheds or water sources. Parcels situated on steep slopes were removed, at least for now, because they're not currently addressed in BLM's Resource Management Plan.
"We had very specific reasons for every acre we deferred," Sharrow explained. "It's been an exhaustive public process."
Posting of the sale notice on Nov. 16 initiated a 30-day protest period which closed Dec. 17. Of the 172 protests received, 150 were for parcels in the North Fork Valley.
"Our office is going through each of those protest letters to see if we missed something," Sharrow said. "We'll be getting through all those, hopefully, before the sale on Feb. 14."
The majority of those objecting to oil and gas activity, especially the use of fracking in the North Fork Valley, have asked for a permanent deferral.
Hall pointed out there's already considerable oil and gas development in the North Fork, particularly in the Muddy area. "It's been difficult for us to convey to folks that this has been going on for 10 years, on the federal mineral estate, and we haven't seen the kind of impacts that are being predicted now."
He also pointed out that projects like the coal methane recovery project at Oxbow would not be possible without oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
"It's not uncommon for there to be a leap when we have an expression of interest for anyone to immediately think, oh, we're going to have thousands of wells," state director Hanks said. "That's normal for people to think but it doesn't quite work that way. When we offer a lease, that's all we're doing at that point in time. If somebody wants to drill a single well then they have to come in with another proposal. We have to do an entirely new environmental review for just one well. If the company wants to drill a second well, they have to come in with another proposal for us to consider. If they drill that well and it's sucessful and they want to drill several wells, then they have to come in again with a proposal for review. Every time they come in it's an environmental document, public involvement. So for them to even get to the point of developing a field is a long process with many steps. It's not possible to go from issuing a lease to a bunch of wells in one step."
That indeed is the concern of residents who have watched the rapid expansion of drilling in Garfield County.
"I don't think there are going to be 10,000 wells in the North Fork Valley," Bagley said. "The potential is medium to low for development. It's not like what you're going to get up in Garfield County at all."
"There's a long way and a lot of uncertainty between a lease and any well, let alone the kind of play you see in Garfield County," Hall added. If there is an oil boom in the North Fork Valley, it will likely occur on public land, he said. Fewer than 5 percent of federal leases across Colorado are ever developed. Plus, BLM's current RMP limits development to 10 wells per year in the Uncompahgre Field Office. "We have never come close to that," Sharrow said.
The market, of course, drives development for oil and gas. Assuming those leases are developed, and assuming they're profitable, exploratory interests could indeed expand to private land, which can be easier and cheaper to drill. It's a lot quicker for oil and gas companies to deal with somebody in the private sector than it is the BLM, Hanks pointed out. It generally takes between eight months and two years for an environmental assessment to be completed for a well on federal land. On the other hand, developers can have COGCC approval for drilling on private land in 30 days.
"It's a fact the most environmentally restrictive oil and gas development in Colorado occurs on federal lands or federal minerals," Hall said. "We set the highest bar and also the highest bar for public participation."
Regardless of the final outcome, BLM officials realize some folks will be dissatisfied. "But hopefully they will feel they were heard because we tried to address a lot of the concerns," Hall said.blog comments powered by Disqus