Forest Service reconsiders drilling plan

A proposal to drill up to five natural gas wells from a pad in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River will get a closer look by the federal government under a lawsuit settlement with conservation groups.

Under the settlement reached Friday, the U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn its approval of a project by SG Interests near Little Henderson Creek area in the West Muddy Creek area of the Gunnison National Forest.

Citizens for a Healthy Community, High Country Conservation Advocates and the Western Environmental Law Center had challenged the Forest Service’s use of what’s called a categorical exclusion to approve the project. Such exclusions can be invoked where activities don’t individually or cumulatively significantly affect “the human environment,” according to the groups’ suit.

They contended the proposal should have been analyzed to consider the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development in the area. Under the settlement, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will conduct a joint environmental analysis of the drilling project and put it out for public review and input.

Jim Ramey with Citizens for a Healthy Community said the Forest Service has used the categorical exclusion process to approve a number of gas wells over the years in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.

“Five wells here, three wells there, it adds up pretty quickly to a whole bunch of new gas wells without going through the legally required environmental analysis,” Ramey said.

SG Interests also has proposed a nearby, 146-well project in the Bull Mountain area (see related story in today’s Daily Sentinel).

The Forest Service initially said the exclusion was permitted because cumulative impacts analysis was done for another 16-well project in that area, but citizens groups said that wasn’t the case and the agency withdrew that decision. The agency then said the exclusion was allowed because the project met criteria including having three or fewer miles of individual co-located pipelines, but the conservation groups said more miles of temporary surface pipelines were planned.

The Forest Service referred a request for comment to the Department of Justice, which couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Robbie Guinn of SG Interests views the settlement as a temporary setback for the drilling plan. “The project will move forward, albeit it’s going to take more time than it might otherwise have,” he said.

Conservation groups are concerned about SG’s planned use of water from Little Henderson Creek for its project, possible spills into the creek, and the project’s contribution to cumulative impacts on things such as air quality and wildlife habitat.


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