Public comment open until April 16
A proposed oil and gas master development plan could eventually result in the drilling of up to 146 natural gas wells 30 miles northeast of Paonia. The Bureau of Land Management is currently accepting public comment on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the plan, which is the first oil and gas master development plan (MDP) in the area. Submitted by SG Interests, Ltd., the plan’s approval would set the tone for development of what is called the Bull Mountain Unit.
The unit encompasses approximately 19,670 acres of federal and private oil and gas mineral estate in Gunnison County and is bisected by State Highway 133. In addition to the gas wells, the proposal includes four water disposal wells and associated pads, access roads, gas and water pipelines, screw compressors and overhead electric lines.
Barb Sharrow, field manager for the BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office, explained that master development plans are a common practice for oil and gas development. This is the first for the Uncompahgre Field Office because that office has not had much development on BLM lands.
“A lot of wells up there currently do not have to go through an environmental analysis with the BLM because they’re on a private surface with private minerals,” Sharrow said. It’s also common for companies to drill some wells before they create an MDP.
“It’s hard for the companies to come in with a master development plan until they have a few wells under their belt and know exactly what the resources will be. [SG Interests] still doesn’t know exactly, but they have a better idea now that they have drilled a few wells,” Sharrow said.
The BLM can approve the MDP as proposed, approve it with modifications or mitigations, or reject it. If it is approved, the EIS will be an “umbrella” analysis for actual development within the Bull Mountain Unit. As SG Interests proposes specific development projects like wells or pipelines, BLM review would be guided by the findings in the EIS.
“The company will still have to come in to us with a specific application,” Sharrow explained. “They will come in with a specific proposal, and we will look at it under the umbrella of the EIS decision.”
That makes the EIS an important part of the overall approval process, and advocacy organizations like High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) are encouraging the public to weigh in.
“Generally, we’re happy they did an EIS because that’s what we asked them to do,” explained Alli Melton, public lands director for HCCA. “But there is a lot of concern that the analysis isn’t up to snuff.”
According to Melton, HCCA is still reviewing the EIS, including hiring a consultant to review the air quality analysis. The organization will submit comments by the April 16 deadline, and already has a few suggestions.
“We would like to see a more robust analysis of alternatives [to the proposed plan],” Melton said. She would like to see the BLM consider phased development to help protect wildlife habitat. Unlike big game in the Gunnison Valley, which migrates from the north end of the valley in the summer toward Highway 50 in the winter, elk and mule deer are more concentrated in the North Fork Valley. Elk habitat in particular overlaps substantially with the area of proposed development, and studies in nearby states suggest that animal behavior is more disrupted by oil and gas development than initially suggested.
Additionally, Melton raised concerns that the plan doesn’t take into account surrounding development. “Just last Wednesday, we received a letter from the BLM looking to do an environmental analysis for six wells, one within one mile and the rest within a few miles of the [Bull Mountain] unit,” Melton said.
While the EIS does not consider the other wells, Sharrow did say the research for the EIS will be applicable to the environmental analysis of those wells and other proposed development in the area.
“The air quality analysis was very regional, and future projects will be analyzed under that model,” she said. “We’ll be able to use a lot of the information that we researched in regard to Bull Mountain for other projects that come up.”
To weigh in on the discussion, submit comments to the BLM by April 16. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, faxed to (970) 240-5368 or mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Uncompahgre Field Office, Attn: Gina Jones, 2465 South Townsend Ave., Montrose, CO, 81401.