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Proposed leasing of BLM land for fracking near Paonia Reservoir

Trump policy changes pose potential threat to local farms

By Cayla Vidmar

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is offering oil and gas leases for sale on lands in northern Gunnison County, in the upper North Fork watershed above the Paonia reservoir, and in the upper Muddy Creek area. There is a short window for public comment, which closes on July 17.

High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) public lands program director Matt Reed is concerned for big game and potential threats to the watershed, which supplies numerous farms, ranches and vineyards with water downstream.

The last time the public had to challenge fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in these proposed locations was in 2012, which spurred so much “public opposition that the lease sale was deferred,” says Reed. Primary public concerns include the proximity of the wells to the Paonia Reservoir, which supplies water for the downstream food-producing farms, along with the impact on big-game habitat.

Reed says the “gist of this issue is that the industry is nominating new parcels for lease and subsequent development in areas that are inappropriate for that,” including areas near organic food production and big-game habitat. Reed explains that these parcels in question are some of the same lands that communities in Delta and Gunnison counties challenged successfully in 2011 and 2012. According to Reed, “Since that time, the BLM has deferred leasing in the North Fork while it revises its applicable local Resource Management Plan.”

However, under the Trump Administration, the BLM is “ignoring this and moving forward with this highly controversial proposal,” says Reed.

Reed explains, this “lease sale is a huge, statewide sale, and includes significant acreage in the Upper North Fork area. … This includes five parcels totaling 6,183 acres in Delta County and four parcels totaling 1,691 acres in Gunnison County.” Reed states these parcels are part of 237,112 acres across Colorado the BLM is proposing to offer for oil and gas development.

This sale, according to Reed, is a “direct result of the Trump administration’s leasing de-reform prerogative, which, among other effects, discouraged pre-leasing analysis, eliminated the BLM’s geographically-rotating lease sale schedule and imposed arbitrary deadlines on processing nominations. What we’re seeing in this monster of a lease sale is the most concrete demonstration so far of what this new policy means in practice.”

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process by which water, sand and other agents are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract oil and gas. According to Reed, the primary concern about the fracking process is the contents of the fracking fluid, the risk of spills, the resulting wastewater, and the geological risk. He also notes, “Millions of gallons of water are needed to frack a single well.”

According to Reed, “The potential impacts that may result from fracking are diverse and significant, and include, among others: impacts to water quality and supply; impacts to habitat and wildlife; impacts to human health; and impacts to greenhouse gas emissions and air quality.”

The proposal also has the potential to threaten big game, which Reed explains as a “death by a thousand cuts. You put a well here, and there, and a road here and a road there and combined, the impact is significant.”

Fracking fluid can contain a host of chemicals and components, which fracking companies are required to make public except in special “trade secret” circumstances. Chemicals can include hydrochloric acid, antifreeze, propane and butane, among others.

Reed stated that “in March 2018, the fifth edition of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Compendium on the impacts of fracking on health, a 266-page review of the scientific and medical studies on fracking and health, concludes that ‘there is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.’”

These chemicals, and the resulting wastewater from the fracking process, are primary concerns for those opposed to fracking in the area, primarily due to the risk of spills and the proximity to the Paonia Reservoir.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has public records for spills listed for each county and operator.

There are currently nine spills listed in Gunnison County, three of which have occurred in 2018. According to Reed, “The Endocrine Disruption Exchange [TEDX] has documented nearly 1,000 products energy companies inject into the ground in the process of extracting natural gas. Many of these products contain chemicals that are harmful to human health.”

Reed has suggestions for concerned citizens when commenting and contacting their elected officials regarding the proposal. “Explain your personal connection, why you care, and why this area is inappropriate for oil and gas leasing. Many of us have a personal connection to this landscape, and personal comments are best.”

Reed continued, “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in biology or petroleum engineering to submit substantive comments. Showing you have skin in the game is important, and all of us—from residents to visitors in Crested Butte—have skin in the game.”

When asked how the BLM would deal with a potential spill in the area, Shannon Borders, public affairs specialist with the BLM stated “we’re at the point in the process where we’re considering that risk, so we’re asking the public to tell us about any issues they want us to evaluate in our analysis. We want to know what the public is concerned about.” The public can do this by submitting comments during the public comment period, which ends on July 17.

Borders stated that even though the BLM has not completed their local Resource Management Plan, all the research that was completed regarding these parcels is not lost in this process, stating “it’s up to the BLM to do our due diligence.”

Reed asks all concerned citizens to submit comments for the proposed lease sale, which can be done at goo.gl/Ksz1Rc by clicking “comment on document” located at the far right, for the “Uncompahgre FO Parcel List & Maps Scoping” document.

HCCA will also be putting relevant information on its website, hccacb.org, including maps, talking points and more detailed information throughout the week. Reed concluded, “People in Crested Butte care, even though it’s a different watershed, people have such a connection to it.”

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