As agency studies leases, fears of roadless area drilling increase

A Carbondale conservation group is raising alarms after the Forest Service decided to allow further consideration of proposed drilling of oil and gas wells from pads within roadless areas.

Some of the oil and gas leases at stake were issued in 2000 and are owned by SG Interests, with Falcon Seaboard Oil and Gas also having an interest in them. The leases involve the Huntsman Ridge roadless area northwest of McClure Pass and the Pilot Knob roadless area west of Paonia Reservoir.

Petrox Resources, which received a lease in 2006, also has proposed drilling in Pilot Knob.

“Our contention is they can’t drill within the roadless area — not if it involves building a road,” said Peter Hart, an attorney with the Wilderness Workshop.

The national roadless rule was issued in 2001. The SG Interests leases were issued ahead of time with lease notices saying they were subject to interim Forest Service suspension of road-building in roadless areas, and also would be subject to the final roadless rule once issued.

That final rule ultimately was buffeted by conflicting court rulings, leading to some leases in roadless areas, including the Petrox lease, being issued without road-building restrictions when the 2001 rule was enjoined in court. Eventually, however, the rule was upheld in court appeals.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has adopted a Colorado-specific roadless rule that stands in place of the national rule. But Hart said it also bars road-building for oil and gas drilling.

The controversy over the status of so-called “gap” leases like the one held by Petrox has gone on for a while. But the 2000 leases raise a different issue.

Forest Service Paonia District Ranger Levi Broyles said lease notices differ from stipulations imposed by the Forest Service. Stipulations are a kind of covenant the Forest Service imposes to protect surface resources, he said. He described the lease notices as simply a buyer-beware warning to companies.

“We need to find out what kind of weight a lease notice contains,” he said.

Also in question is whether future regulations can be enacted on a lease property right that is being conveyed, he said.

Local Forest Service officials consulted with the agency’s regional office as required under the Colorado rule, and the agency decided to proceed with an environmental review of the drilling proposals. Broyles said that will include a chance for the public to comment before any decision is made.


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