Groups sue to stop drilling in North Fork
Two citizen groups have sued to try to stop the drilling of up to five oil and gas wells from a well pad in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, arguing the U.S. Forest Service failed to consider the cumulative impacts of that project along with other similar projects in the area.
Citizens for a Healthy Community and the High Country Citizens’ Alliance are challenging the Forest Service’s use of what’s called a categorical exclusion in the case of the proposal by SG Interests in the West Muddy Creek area of the Gunnison National Forest.
According to the suit, federal law allows certain activities to be categorically excluded from full environmental review if they don’t individually or cumulatively “have a significant effect on the human environment.”
The suit says there has been no prior, site-specific environmental analysis “of the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas development in the area.”
In a first attempt at granting a categorical exclusion to the SG Interests project, the Forest Service said such an analysis was carried out for a 16-well Gunnison Energy proposal in that area. But the citizen groups said that wasn’t the case, and the Forest Service ultimately withdrew its initial decision due to what it called “administrative issues.”
SG Interests also has proposed a 150-well project in the nearby Bull Mountain area, but an environmental review of that project continues.
The Forest Service now says the categorical exclusion for the five-well project is allowed under its regulations because it meets criteria including having three or fewer miles of individual or co-located pipelines. But the suit says it would have 5.5 miles of plastic pipeline on the surface to carry wastewater to pits, and that the regulations don’t distinguish between temporary or permanent pipelines, or between ones on federal or other property. The pipeline would cross about 1.5 miles of national forest.
The groups worry about potential impacts to elk and other wildlife, and the fact that SG Interests has estimated it may need up to 150,000 barrels of water to complete the five wells, drawing it primarily from Little Henderson Creek. A barrel is 42 gallons.
Forest Service officials declined comment on the suit. In his September decision granting the categorical exclusion, Paonia District Ranger Levi Broyles said the water depletion is covered in a blanket biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also said that due to public interest and concerns from Colorado Parks and Wildlife about impacts on big-game winter range, the Forest Service evaluated three other possible well pad locations, but the proposed one proved to be the most environmentally sound.