BLM seems hell bent on opening the oil and gas floodgates in the North Fork without knowing or caring whether a storm is coming. Leasing of oil and gas mineral rights grants a legal right to access all the oil and gas that may be under a leased parcel, and the 20,000-plus acres slated to be thrust on the block in the February lease sale make up a critical part of the North Fork Valley.
So if drillers find a big oil or gas play here, we kiss our existing way of life goodbye.
Sure, all these horrors might not come about unless there's considerable development. But who's to say that can't happen? Not me and surely not the regional and state BLM officials who visited our humble towns last week. Listening to state BLM director Helen Hankins you might even take home the idea that BLM's 1989-vintage Resource Management Plan (RMP) would restrict oil and gas drilling to no more than 10 wells per year in the whole 380,000-acre Uncompahgre Field Office jurisdiction. But you'd be wrong: that's just the most the antiquated RMP anticipated might be drilled. What's already happening is very different: drilling is ongoing up in the Muddy and BLM states in the environmental assessment for the North Fork lease sale that they anticipate about 20 wells per year just in the greater North Fork area, and SG Interests has proposed drilling 150 wells in the Bull Mountain unit alone in the next few years. So, while they went way out of their way to explain how glacially slow actual drilling has occurred just in Delta County — at a rate of one or two wells a year — they seemed to discount what's happening in the Muddy, and they can't and don't deny the real possibility of oil and gas development in the bottom of the valley imposing an economic, social, cultural and environmental Armageddon on us.
Barb Sharrow, director of the Uncompahgre Field Office, says we should probably worry more about oil and gas drilling on private lands in the North Fork since it's relatively easier and quicker to drill for private minerals than for federal ones. While we surely do need to beef up the county's master plan and oil and gas regulations, we can't lose our focus. And, consider if some company buys the 20,000 plus acres of federal leases in February, sits on them for now, then drills a few "quick and easy" exploratory wells on private and finds a marketable amount of oil or gas in the Dakota formation under the Mancos. They use their ace-in-the-hole federal leases (which they can drill any time they want for a period of 10 years or more) to discourage other companies from coming in, and start buying up more private mineral rights to build a North Fork empire, while pitting the neighbor who won't sell against the one who will until the last holdouts just wish it all could have gone a different way. And don't forget the added negative effects of whatever development happens on the 124,000 acres of federal minerals already leased in the greater North Fork area including up the Muddy and the side of Grand Mesa.
Many folks think we're just being NIMBYs for opposing this lease sale. But these parcels aren't in our back yard, they're in our front yard here in the heart of the valley, next to our farms (under in some cases), overhanging our lifeblood ditches, surrounding our towns. Heck, the way I feel is that these parcels are part of our very homes. Some, like David Ludlum with the Western Slope wing of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, call us provincial for not wanting to do our part for the good of the country. It's amazing what we already contribute: enough BTUs of coal leave the valley by rail in a good year to supply all the energy needs of 60 U.S. citizens for every man, woman and child in the whole North Fork, and add to that the gas already flowing from the Muddy with more to follow. Unfortunately, a lot of gas will be exported to China and India when the export terminals now under construction get cranked up. It's not about energy security for everybody and we will never be able to shovel coal or pump gas into the maw of their corporate money machine fast enough to satisfy them.
The North Fork lease sale is hardly a blip in the big energy picture, but it sure is a heavy chain around our necks. BLM doesn't have to lease these parcels in the heart of the North Fork. Not now. Not ever.