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Pipeline into roadless areas draws fire

Environmentalists outraged over Bull Mountain pipeline

The U.S. Forest Service has just released the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Bull Mountain natural gas pipeline, and environmental groups are crying foul. However, proponents of the pipeline say it is needed in order to get their product to market.



According to a consortium of preservation advocates—including High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA), Western Colorado Congress, Wilderness Workshop and Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, all Colorado-based environmental groups—the U.S. Forest Service has chosen the worst possible alternative for the pipeline route.
“The U.S. Forest Service has unwisely chosen the most destructive and potentially illegal path for the Bull Mountain natural gas pipeline,” the conservation groups said in a press release dated Friday, November 19.
As proposed, the Bull Mountain pipeline is a 25.5-mile-long underground steel pipeline that will transport natural gas into a national pipeline system. Approximately eight miles of the pipeline will run through Gunnison County. The 20-inch-diameter pipeline is being proposed by SG Interests I, Ltd., based in Houston, Texas. Gunnison Energy Corporation also owns natural gas wells in the area and would be served by the Bull Mountain pipeline.
The pipeline would traverse two national forests though five Colorado counties—Gunnison, Delta, Mesa, Garfield and Pitkin—and would bisect the 120,000-acre Clear Fork Divide designated roadless area that connects the Grand and Battlement Mesas to the West Elk Mountains.
Dave Boyd, a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), said that because the pipeline affects more Forest Service land than BLM land, his agency agreed to let the Forest Service take the lead on evaluating environmental impacts. He said the Forest Service decided that the route through the roadless areas would be less environmentally damaging.
“The Forest Service felt the other alternatives (for routing the pipeline) would take longer to build and impact environmentally sensitive areas more,” he said.
SG Interests vice-president Robbie Guinn says the Forest Service has been working on the EIS for three years and the arguments for the legality of the pipeline through inventoried roadless areas are compelling. “It has been researched thoroughly,” he says. “The truth is that the alternatives that were analyzed would do more environmental damage than the proposed action.”
However, the environmental groups feel that more weight should have been given to the roadless designations during the decision-making process.
“The whole point of the Roadless Rule is to protect intact ecosystems like the Clear Fork Divide,” said Mark Schofield, spokesperson for Western Colorado Congress. “As the Forest Service concedes, this project will have significant adverse impacts on these areas.”
According to the EIS, the pipeline would affect three designated roadless areas—the Clear Creek, Baldy Mountain and East Willow areas. Since construction of the pipeline would necessitate building a road, the environmental groups argue that the project violates roadless rules.
“This is a clear violation of the 2001 Roadless Rule,” said Robin Cooley, attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing local conservation groups opposed to the chosen route.
Cooley says she worries that allowing the road to be built under the guise of temporary use will set a Forest Service precedent for other roads in other designated roadless areas.
“This case has national ramifications,” she said.
Gunnison Energy president Brad Robinson told the Grand Junction Sentinel that he understands the concerns of conservation groups about crossing roadless areas.
“We always try to limit our work in those areas, as well as anywhere else on public and private lands,” he said. However, he said the pipeline is needed to get the gas to market. Guinn agrees. “There’s no outlets for the amount of gas production that we’ve found there,” he says. “The current pipeline is inadequate for transporting the amount of gas we’ve found.”
The environmental groups also take issue with the size and scope of the pipeline, arguing that it would accommodate up to 282 wells—far more than the 50 or 60 contemplated by the EIS.
The preservationists are afraid that such a large pipeline will spawn industrialization of public lands, compromising their scenic and wildlife values.
“The Forest Service and BLM are getting their marching orders straight out of D.C.—full speed ahead with energy development with total disregard for cherished Western values: clean air, clean water, bountiful wildlife, and unrivaled hunting opportunities,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
Boyd said by law the BLM makes the final decision on issues that impact multiple federal jurisdictions, including BLM lands. However, because the Bull Mountain pipeline project affects only a small portion of BLM land, the BLM has agreed to allow the Forest Service to be the lead agency on the pipeline decision.
“We will concur with the Forest Service’s findings,” Boyd said.
Now, according to Boyd, the public comment period is over and there will be a 30-day period before the “full force” decision will be made.
Boyd said the project can begin once the full force decision is made.
“Once the decision is made, it will take an injunction to stop the it,” he said.
Guinn says he anticipates starting construction on the $27 million pipeline in May 2008. “We hope to have it in operation by the end of 2008,” he says.

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