Industry objects to forest drilling limits, but environmental groups call for more

An industry group says a proposal that would govern oil and gas development on the White River National Forest creates significant challenges for effective drilling there.

But a coalition of environmental groups would love to see further limitations on drilling on the forest via a moratorium on new leases.

The West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association says in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service that its proposed rules prohibiting or controlling surface uses, or limiting them through seasonal restrictions, appear to cover nearly all of the area that would be available for leasing under the plan.

“This creates significant challenges for reasonable development and access,” the group says in its letter. It says the rules “effectively remove valuable natural gas resources from the national energy inventory.”

A preliminary proposal by the Forest Service identifies 266,599 acres on the forest as available for oil and gas development. About 141,000 of those acres are roadless, and the agency is proposing barring surface use of those acres for oil and gas development.

However, 61,000 of those roadless acres already are leased, and many of those leases aren’t bound by the surface restrictions, which would only be imposed if the leases expire and new ones are issued for those acres.

Altogether, about 130,000 acres in the forest already are leased. A letter to the Forest Service signed by 11 conservation groups says more than 90,000 of those acres have yet to be developed and that such development threatens other forest resources.

“The last thing the agency should do is compound the threat by issuing additional leases,” the groups say.

The West Slope association contends the Forest Service may be misleading the public about how much of the gas beneath roadless acreage might be accessed by use of directional drilling from outside that acreage. Topographical, geographic and geological challenges within the forest in the southeastern part of the Piceance Basin “often prohibit what is technically possible” in other parts of the basin, the group said.

Glenn Adams, leasable forest staff officer and Rifle district ranger, said he understands the industry’s worry about barring activity on roadless areas.

“I believe that’s their biggest concern, and it’s a valid concern, but it’s also the way the land is designated,” he said.

A 2001 national rule protects roadless areas from development, although it has been the subject of conflicting court rulings.

Adams said the opportunity to drill beneath roadless areas doesn’t disappear under the forest proposal, but “just becomes a little more difficult.”

He said the stipulations the Forest Service is seeking to impose to reduce the impacts of drilling are an improvement over its current oil and gas plan.

“We were pretty weak on that side of it in the past,” he said.

The conservation groups say the government shouldn’t lease minerals beneath the roadless areas. Already, trying to protect their surfaces from drilling is resulting in a lot of directional drilling around their fringes, and one result is wildlife migration corridors between roadless areas are disrupted, said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop.

He credited the Forest Service for its general effort to better protect natural values while drilling in the region continues to expand.

“I don’t think you can fault the Forest Service for trying to preserve some of these (values) in light of the boom we’re seeing,” he said.


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