Plan for 35 wells worries activists

When the Bureau of Land Management proposed offering tens of thousands of acres for oil and gas leasing a few years ago in the North Fork Valley, organic farm owners Jason Trimm and Alison Gannett heard from customers concerned about the possible impacts.

“We saw revenue lost just from the idea of fracking in the watershed above the farm,” Trimm said.

The BLM later deferred the proposed leasing. But similar concerns have prompted the couple, the owners of the Holy Terror Farm in the Paonia area, to join hundreds of other members of the public who activists say have submitted comments of concern about a Gunnison Energy proposal to drill 35 horizontal wells into the Mancos shale formation from five pads in the upper North Fork Valley.

Trimm said that for him and Gannett, it’s not a matter of being opposed to energy development in general.

“We’re not that way. We’re concerned about what we’ve built here. Obviously, we have our life’s stake here,” said Trimm, who fears potential drilling impacts such as a spill that could contaminate the irrigation water on his property, and thus potentially the products he sells.

Trimm and Gannett were among some 25 farm, food and drink related businesses that signed a letter put together by the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance, Slow Food Western Slope and Valley Organic Growers Association raising concerns about Gunnison Energy’s plan.

“In general, we support energy policy and public lands management that directs industrial activities away from important agricultural areas and water supplies, and that encourages a sustainable future,” the groups said in their letter.

“… The North Fork Valley’s economy relies more on protecting the natural amenities and resources of the valley than on exploiting them. Pinning hopes on yet another boom/bust extractive industry is a strategy for further economic malaise and stagnation.”

Natasha Leger, interim executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia, said nearly 500 comments were submitted to the BLM and Forest Service by local North Fork Valley residents, tourists, visitors and local produce consumers before an initial comment period deadline on Gunnison Energy’s proposal.

She said comments focused on the valley’s reputation for clean air, water and food, and raised concerns about things such as spills, contamination of surface and groundwater from hydraulic fracturing fluids, and induced seismicity from wastewater injection wells.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency estimates it received more than 8,000 comments submissions on the drilling proposal, mostly emailed form letters. Those comments are for what is just the initial “scoping” period of seeking public comments on the proposal as work begins on an environmental assessment that also will be available for public comment.

Boyd said 8,000 comments are more than typical for scoping for a project involving five pads, but he added that for the Bureau of Land Management, the number of comments is less important than issues identified as necessary for the agency to address before doing an analysis and making a decision.

The comment numbers reflect a continuing level of high interest and concern among some in the North Fork Valley and beyond about drilling there.

Leger previously has said citizens submitted 37,000 comments opposing North Fork Valley oil and gas leasing in the BLM’s new resource management plan for its Uncompahgre Field Office. That plan is currently in its draft stage.

Gunnison Energy’s 35-well proposal is the first phase of what the company says could be a two-phase, 13-pad drilling program, depending on results from the first phase and other factors such as natural gas prices.

Its proposal won general support from the Delta County commissioners, who in a letter to the BLM called it a “controlled and planned approach to develop the Mancos Shale potential,” with efficiencies that would reduce impacts compared to a well-by-well approach.

They emphasized the importance of minimizing impacts to things like recreation/tourism and the environment, but urged the BLM also to recognize the “prudent and effective” efforts of Gunnison Energy and surface owners to limit impacts where the company has done other drilling in the area.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, wrote to the BLM that Delta County badly needs the jobs and revenues from even a modest project like the one being proposed.

He also bemoaned delays in approving other projects in the area, like SG Interests’ proposed 146-well Bull Mountain project.

“Approving this (35-well) project in a reasonable timeframe will demonstrate the (BLM’s) response to an election which clearly shifted national priority towards allowing energy production to move forward,” Ludlam said.

But the potential cumulative impacts of the Gunnison Energy plan when considered in tandem with other projects such as Bull Mountain is a concern for many, and not just activists.

In commenting to the BLM on the Gunnison Energy proposal, Colorado Parks and Wildlife noted that it had asked the BLM to address adverse impacts to big game numbers and hunting opportunities in the Bull Mountain area from more wells there.

It recommended in that case the BLM “consider offsetting direct habitat loss and loss of habitat quality through implementation of measures that compensate for this loss, including habitat replacement (through conservation) and/or implementation of specific projects designed to raise the carrying capacity of remaining habitats.”

But the BLM didn’t incorporate that recommendation into its final environmental impact statement for the Bull Mountain plan, “and these unavoidable adverse impacts are ongoing and unmitigated,” Parks and Wildlife said in its letter.

Citing other proposals in the area, the agency said, “We remain concerned with the level of oil and gas development and landscape-scale impacts to wildlife populations and recreational hunting and fishing opportunities in the area.”

The BLM says it is working closely with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to address its comments on the Bull Mountain environmental impact statement as it works to finalize a decision on that project, and is incorporating Parks and Wildlife’s input into its scoping process for the Gunnison Energy project.

Gunnison County commissioners urged the BLM to consider the “assimilative capacity” and “carrying capacity” of the North Fork area when it comes to the environmental and social limits of oil and gas development, and said it should do analysis of not just the Gunnison Energy proposal, but that proposal “superimposed on existing projects, and considering reasonably anticipated projects.”

Trimm said he thinks there’s a lack of trust between the public and the energy industry, including Gunnison Energy.

“I’m not sure what the gas company can do to restore that, but people who buy organic produce generally don’t have faith in those type of activities happening right above the watershed,” he said.


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