North Fork drilling plan gets approval

BLM green-lights 146 wells 30 miles northeast of Paonia

The Bureau of Land Management has approved a 146-well North Fork Valley oil and gas development plan that has been about a decade in the works and has been one of the flashpoints in the controversy over drilling there.

The agency approved what’s called the Bull Mountain master development plan for leases operated by SG Interests. The action included approval of a permit to drill just one of the wells, but the plan provides a framework for developing the nearly 20,000-acre area, with future drilling applications subject to site-specific review, the BLM said.

Robbie Guinn, an SG Interests vice president, said he’s pleased that the Trump administration got the environmental impact statement process for the project finished.

“We’re hoping that we can start developing and see some economic development in this area,” he said.

He believes the project review had dragged out for too long.

The BLM began working on a preliminary environmental assessment in 2008. In 2012 it decided that a more involved environmental impact statement needed to be prepared due to concerns about potentially significant air-quality and other impacts.

According to a Federal Register notice, the approved plan “includes a suite of design features, mitigation measures and best management practices that specifically address impacts to air resources and air quality related values, water resources, and wildlife.”

The BLM says a master development plan allows for more orderly development, requiring fewer wells to be drilled and resulting in fewer surface impacts.

The approved plan includes four wastewater injection wells, up to 33 well pads, as well as new roads, pipelines and compressor stations.

The project area is south of McClure Pass and about 30 miles northeast of Paonia, and is bisected by Colorado Highway 133. It involves 440 acres of BLM land, with the rest being private, but it includes nearly 13,000 acres of federal minerals. The remaining minerals are privately owned.

The Paonia-based group Citizens for a Healthy Community has opposed the proposal. It has called for a moratorium on oil and gas development until the BLM revises its resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office, and says the BLM has failed to analyze the cumulative effects of proposed oil and gas development and active wells in the North Fork area.

Last month, the Wilderness Society issued a report labeling the upper North Fork Valley as one of 15 places in the country that it considers “Too Wild to Drill.”

Said Guinn, “Oil and gas development has been going on a long time up there and there’s really been no … degradation of resource values in the North Fork Valley with all the development that has occurred.”

He said SG Interests has done some drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the area this summer.

With the Bull Mountain plan approval, the company plans initially to pursue drilling of wells it is obligated to drill to hold onto leases and to keep in effect its Bull Mountain lease unit, an aggregate of federal leases covered by the new plan.

Future drilling plans remain to be determined, but Guinn said a coal-bed methane well it drilled in the unit this summer was highly successful. Those wells are relatively shallow, which makes them more economical to drill, even with today’s low natural gas prices, he said.

Guinn said a benefit of the Bull Mountain plan’s completion is that because of the amount of environmental analysis it already has undergone, the further analysis required in the case of individual drilling applications oftentimes should be minimal. That means the process of reviewing them generally should take weeks instead of months, he said.

Opponents of the Bull Mountain decision can ask to have it reconsidered by the BLM state director in Colorado, and Guinn said he expects such a review to be requested.

The BLM says in a news release that during the drilling phase, the Bull Mountain project “could generate up to $100 million in employment income and 470 jobs annually. The production phase could generate up to $14 million in employment income, and up to 135 jobs annually.”


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