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New gas development could bring 35 new wells to Gunnison County

BLM, Forest Service accepting comments on project north of Paonia

By Alissa Johnson

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are accepting comments on a natural gas development proposal within Gunnison County and about 12 miles north of Paonia. If approved, the project could begin as early as this spring or summer and could include the drilling of up to 35 wells during the first phase of the project.

According to information from the BLM, the North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan has been submitted by Gunnison Energy, LLC. The proposal includes the drilling of up to 35 horizontal wells from four new well pads and one existing well pad over three years. Three of the new pads would be located on National Forest lands and one on private land.

Gunnison Energy estimates that the wells could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of natural gas over 30 years. The proposal includes upgrading up to 2.2 miles of existing roads and the construction of up to 4.6 miles of new roads. Surface disturbance is expected to be about 26 acres on federal lands and 10 acres on private lands, with about 17 acres of federal land and three acres of private lands being disturbed over the long term.

According to Shannon Borders, BLM public affairs specialist, the public comment deadline was extended 30 days. Comments are now due March 22, but she doesn’t expect that extension to greatly delay review of the project.

“We hope to be able to move forward with the project in a timely fashion for the operator,” she said.

Matt Reed, public lands director for High Country Conservation Advocates, says that in weighing in on the proposal, it’s important to remember it’s not an isolated project. The area in question borders what is known as the Bull Mountain Unit, where a Master Development Plan under consideration by the BLM proposes up to 146 wells.

The Bull Mountain Unit proposal has been through a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS), and a record of decision is imminent. In addition, this North Fork Mancos MDP is phase one of two. Taking the second phase into account, there could be a total of up to 13 well pads. And a late 2016 Forest Service decision to reinstate an exception to the Colorado Roadless Rule allows for mining-related activities in the region as well.

“I don’t think [the North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan] can be viewed by itself. It has to be viewed in context with the other development that has happened and is proposed to happen,” Reed said.

With that in mind, Reed says it’s not sufficient to simply conduct an environmental analysis of this proposal. HCCA wants to see a full EIS conducted.

“That’s one of our biggest criticisms with the way these proposals are being handled in the North Fork. It’s a very segmented, piecemeal analysis, and it should be comprehensive to take in all of this proposed development,” Reed continued.

Reed noted that development has the potential to impact wildlife habitat, the health of the watershed feeding into the North Fork of the Gunnison River, and recreation, among other impacts. It could even affect the viewshed of the Crested Butte to Carbondale trail, for which Pitkin County Open Space recently received a $100,000 planning grant from Great Outdoors Colorado.

With the BLM and Forest Service accepting comment until March 22, now is the time for locals not only to weigh in on the proposal but to let the agencies know specifically how they recreate in or benefit from the area. Because the review process is in the public scoping phase, the BLM must consider, analyze and address any uses or issues raised via public comments.

“In Crested Butte and Gunnison, there is a connection to the North Fork, whether that’s produce in the Paonia area or doing the West Elk Loop and looking at the aspens,” Reed said. “I don’t think we as a community can ignore the development that’s happening and proposed for the landscape. It’s really in our interest to pay attention to what’s happening there.”

Comments may be submitted to the Bureau of Land Management  at blm_co_si_mail@blm.gov and to the Forest Service at nmortenson@fs.fed.us.

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