County holding public hearing on proposal
With a lawsuit pending from several environmental groups, Houston-based SG Interests Ltd. and Gunnison Energy have applied for the requisite permits to allow their proposed 25.5-mile Bull Mountain natural gas pipeline to cross the northwest corner of Gunnison County.
The pipeline would traverse two national forests through 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.
Approximately eight miles of the pipeline will go through three roadless areas, with a portion falling within an existing pipeline corridor.
In order for the project to traverse an eight-mile section of Gunnison County, proponents must satisfy the conditions of the Gunnison County Temporary Regulations for Oil and Gas Operations.
Adhering to the process delineated by the gas and oil regulations, on January 25 and 26, the joint County Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners began an exhaustive review of the proposed pipeline to determine whether the project complies with county regulations.
According to the regulations, a major gas and oil operation such as the Bull Mountain pipeline requires a joint public hearing by the County Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners. A recommendation from the Planning Commission to the Board of County Commissioners is necessary before a decision can be reached.
The proposed pipeline has already received approval from the Forest Service, which found that the route would have the fewest impacts on the surrounding forest, despite bisecting the roadless areas. The 2001 Roadless Areas Conservation Rule states that no permanent or temporary roads can be built in designated roadless areas, but Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG) supervisor Charlie Richmond said in a December 7 interview that the cleared path necessary for construction of the pipeline does not constitute a road.
However, environmental activists disagree. 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—say they intend to sue the U.S. Forest Service for what they say is a violation of the intent of the 2001 Roadless Area Rule.
The county’s 2003 regulations were adopted to encourage responsible exploration and production of oil and gas resources and ensure that such operations do little or no harm to the environment or to the public. Because of the large volume of gas and oil projects on Colorado’s Western Slope, county officials decided that additional safeguards were necessary to govern such operations, and the regulations were adopted in 2003.
As per county gas and oil regulations, the project proponents must disclose all potential impacts, including those to wildlife, water quality and air quality. The regulations also mandate addressing concerns such as effects on recreation and livestock values.
Robbie Guinn of SG Interests said during the public hearing that for the most part, the pipeline would follow the corridor of the existing Ragged Mountain pipeline. "We’ve routed it to maximize existing disturbances," he said.
According to Guinn, however, the proposed pipeline would require a wider area of disturbance. "It will be a 100-foot construction corridor, and it will be a 50-foot permanent right-of way," he said.
Once the project is finished, Guinn said the area of disturbance would be reseeded. Except for a 10-foot wide area directly above the pipeline, all native vegetation would be allowed to grow in the easement, including trees, according to Guinn.
County officials were particularly interested in the project’s effects on wildlife and water quality. Proponents said the pipeline would disturb 3.9 acres of wetlands.
Dan Morse, public lands director for HCCA, said a "bladed, hardened surface" would accommodate hundreds of construction vehicles and therefore constitutes a road. "The common sense test is what ought to be applied," he said.
He also said the roadless areas on the proposed route had some of the richest wildlife values in the state, and he was concerned that county oil and gas standards regarding wildlife protection could not be met if the project were allowed to commence as proposed.
Brad Robinson of Gunnison Energy wondered why the area was so rich in wildlife since the Ragged Mountain pipeline had already been constructed there. The energy corporations have argued from the beginning that pipelines have little effect on wildlife values.
County planning commissioner Ramon Reed said the Planning Commission meetings are an opportunity for the public as well as county officials to familiarize themselves with the proposed project and make comments if necessary. "The process is pretty simple," he said. "We take input from the applicant and the public and then decide whether it fits within our regulations."
The joint public hearings on the Bull Mountain pipeline will continue on Friday, February 29. No action has been taken by county officials so far.