Drillers hit North Fork resistance to leases

About the only obvious clue to the depth of opposition to drilling in the North Fork Valley came as guffaws filled the Paonia High School auditorium Saturday morning.

Derisive laughter rang out as officials explained that drilling companies had the opportunity to protect as trade secrets the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

“Did you hear that laughter?” Bill Ela, a retired Mesa County district judge and now an organic fruit grower on Rogers Mesa, asked about whether he thought participants in the meeting seemed to oppose drilling.

Ela said he, like many, is worried about how drilling would affect his organic fruit business.

Already it’s possible for his son, Steve, to discern the difference between fruit hanging from trees in the first two rows of trees next to a road and the rest of the crop farther away from traffic, Ela said.

Drillers will have to use those roads, posing the potential of increased dust, Ela noted.

The meeting, sponsored by the Delta County Commission, included presentations from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and several county officials. It came on the heels of a meeting last month in which more than 400 people gathered in an auditorium at Hotchkiss High School to protest the potential leasing of 30,000 acres of North Fork lands on 22 parcels around the North Fork of the Gunnison.

Saturday’s gathering drew fewer people, as many as 140, and for them it was an opportunity to meet with the agencies and people who regulate the drilling industry, said Sarah Sauter, executive director of a conservation center formed by two environmental organizations.

For the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the meeting is part of a process that will define how the Obama administration will handle leasing for oil and gas.

“Not a single federal natural gas lease was issued last year in Colorado that wasn’t protested, deferred, withdrawn or in some way delayed,” association Executive Director David Ludlam said. “The North Fork Valley is one of the test cases for Salazar’s lease reform.”

Ludlam was referring to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who in June 2010 said he would reform the way the federal government leases oil and gas through the Bureau of Land Management.

For the North Fork River Improvement Association-Western Slope Environmental Research Center Conservation Center, the immediate choice is for an environmental impact statement, Sauter said.

With the threats to water and air quality, as well as to the various small farms, orchards and vineyards that are getting an economic foothold in the valley, the need for a full environmental review is clear, Sauter said, and it’s not about not-in-my-back-yard obstructionism.

“This is not about our back yards,” Sauter said. “This is about out front yards.”

An environmental assessment due to come out this week could point the way to that, said Barbara Sharrow, field manager for the Montrose office of the BLM.

As it’s conducting the environmental assessment for the lease sale in August, the agency also is conducting an environmental impact statement for the scheduled revision of its resource-management plan.

If the environmental assessment recommends an environmental impact statement, it will likely go forward under the evaluation of the resource management plan.

Once the environmental analysis is released, there will be a 30-day public-comment period.

Her office is working on plans to make it possible for people to enter comments directly into a database, which will make it easier for bureau officials to sort and analyze them, Sharrow said.


COMMENTS

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Is a farm still organic if there is a spill on the road next to it? These farmers are protecting their investment and their livlihood. Don’t they deserve the same consideration as drillers who don’t actually live in the North Fork Valley?

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