Environmental groups prepare lawsuit to stop February 14 auction
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is putting the finishing touches on plans for a February 14 oil and gas lease sale on 20 parcels of land, nine of which are around Gunnison County’s North Fork Valley.
Gunnison County officials met by phone with several senior staff from the state’s BLM office on Tuesday, January 22 to discuss the county’s letter of objection over the proposed lease sale, which has been delayed since August of last year, and the process leading up to the sale.
“We’ve been through a very long process with this North Fork oil and gas lease sale and we’re not at the end of it yet,” Barb Sharrow, manager for the BLM’s Uncompahgre field office, told the commissioners.
At the same time, however, North Fork Valley-based environmental group Citizens for a Healthy Community is preparing to file a lawsuit against the BLM if it fails to defer the sale of 20 parcels in the greater North Fork Valley area, beyond Gunnison County’s border.
In its own way, Gunnison County tried to slow the coming lease sale in its communications with the BLM. In its letter of objection to the original August 2012 lease sale, the Board of County Commissioners asked that the agency hold off on leasing the parcels in Gunnison County “until a full and complete NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis has been initiated and completed.”
That analysis cannot move forward as it should, the county said, until the 1989 Resource Management Plan (RMP), which informs the BLM’s decisions about where to lease, is updated.
Asked by county manager Matthew Birnie when the BLM expects to be done with its ongoing revision of the RMP, Sharrow said, “We’ve been working on it for two or three years and a draft will be coming out in April, May, June. We’re not exactly sure yet.”
But the new RMP wouldn’t come before the February lease sale date, Sharrow said.
After protests from residents of the North Fork Valley, Gunnison County and others delayed the lease sale from its original August 2012 date, the BLM revisited the proposed leases and ultimately withdrew parcels totaling more than 9,300 acres from consideration.
In the areas the County is still concerned about, county attorney David Baumgarten asked the BLM if there was a way to talk about the viability of certain parcels for natural gas development, and possibly explore alternate methods for getting at gas in what the county might consider unsuitable areas for a drill rig, before the lease sale moves forward.
“We really felt that an alternate method, where the various staffs get together and try to identify particularly fruitful opportunities to extract from different pools and then put those parcels up for lease, may be an alternate way that would eliminate some of the protest and eliminate some of the uncertainty and certainly may eliminate some of the [delay] in when these leases move forward,” he said.
As a way of showing that the county’s concerns had already been addressed during the federal process, Lonny Bagley, the BLM’s deputy state director for energy, lands and minerals, told Baumgarten, “From that perspective, we can offer a lease with no surface occupancy, if there are technologies to reach those minerals through other means, like directional drilling or horizontal drilling.”
Then Baumgarten added, “The field office has gone through and analyzed the impacts to the resources and determined that those parcels could be leased.” In other words, the BLM deemed the county’s concerns about the terrain’s suitability for drilling unfounded and decided not to restrict surface activity on the lease.
Commissioner Phil Chamberland pressed, “My thought is that there are places, like the North Fork, where topography makes it very difficult and from an environmental standpoint very harsh to set drill rigs up. And there are other areas that are very appropriate, if they can reach two and three miles, four miles, or even more—how can we facilitate that happening?”
Bagley repeated that the areas being proposed for leasing were deemed appropriate for drilling, adding that the technology to drill that far from a well pad isn’t available, and even if it were, the logistics of subsurface leasing could make such an enterprise difficult, if not impossible.
“There are opportunities, however, for rigs to be placed at a distance away from the lease, but it would not be at the four-mile range. The longest horizontal drill that I know of right now is at about 13,000 feet of horizontal lay,” Bagley said. “The technology is still not there. We determined that these parcels are available for lease and the surface is conducive to placing a rig on it.”
The BLM’s process-oriented position has pushed people concerned with the expanding natural gas development in the North Fork Valley away from the traditional local channels and into the national fray.
There are already about 47 active gas wells in the North Fork, around Muddy Creek, with nine new permits approved in Gunnison County last year and big plans by gas developers for expansion in the Bull Mountain Unit in the years ahead.
In a last-ditch attempt at stopping the sale of 20 more leases across more than 20,000 acres, Citizens for a Healthy Community sent five North Fork-area business owners and residents to talk to representatives of Colorado’s congressional delegation, as well as BLM staff, about the February lease sale.
According to CHC director Jim Ramey, the meetings went well, with the group’s representatives meeting with several congressional staff members and senior BLM staff. But that didn’t dissuade the group, along with the Western Environmental Law Center, from preparing a lawsuit to stop the sale if the BLM fails to defer the leasing of all remaining parcels.
“Farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, small business owners and other concerned residents in the North Fork do not want this lease sale to move forward. We’re asking the BLM to stop this bad idea in its tracks,” CHC’s Ramey wrote in a statement. “If they don’t remove the parcels, we’ll be forced to file a lawsuit to protect the community while we work toward thoughtful management in a new Resource Management Plan.”
The statement goes on to note that while BLM Colorado state director Helen Hankins and other BLM staff members traveled to the area to meet with the Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia town councils, the public was refused the opportunity to speak at the meetings.
“We have consistently called upon the BLM to hold a public hearing in order to communicate directly with the concerned residents of the North Fork Valley, and the [Uncompahgre field office] and BLM’s Colorado office have consistently refused,” Ramey’s statement read.
Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel said, “The decision to lease these lands based on a decades-old and deficient RMP threatens so many of the valuable resources that make the North Fork Valley the thriving community it is today. There’s a very compelling legal argument to be made before a federal judge.”
The Uncompahgre field office’s Sharrow, for her part, says she and her team are still sifting through the more than 150 protests her office received related to the North Fork lease sale. “We did receive over 150 protests and we’re already through a lot of them,” she said. “So it may take up until right before the sale to make some of the decisions.”
And the sale is still scheduled for February 14.