County poised to approve proposal
After months of consideration, Gunnison County is poised to approve its own permits for the 25.5-mile Bull Mountain natural gas pipeline, which will cross the northwest corner of the county.
The pipeline, proposed by Houston-based SG Interests Ltd. and Gunnison Energy, has already received approval from the U.S. Forest Service, which found that the route would have the fewest impacts on the surrounding forest, despite bisecting three roadless areas.
In response to that decision, a consortium of environmental groups—including the local High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA)—filed suit against the Forest Service for allegedly violating the 2001 Roadless Area Rule.
The group’s attorneys appeared in United States District Court for Colorado to request a preliminary injunction against construction of the pipeline, which could begin as soon as May 1 under the Forest Service’s approval. HCCA public lands director Dan Morse said the organizations hope the court will make a decision before that date.
The pipeline would traverse two national forests through five Colorado counties—Gunnison, Delta, Mesa, Garfield and Pitkin—and would enter the 120,000-acre Clear Fork Divide designated roadless complex that connects the Grand and Battlement Mesas to the West Elk Mountains.
In order for the project to traverse an eight-mile section of Gunnison County, proponents must also satisfy the conditions of the Gunnison County Temporary Regulations for Oil and Gas Operations.
The regulations were adopted in 2003 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.
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. For the past year, Gunnison County has been conducting an exhaustive review of the proposed pipeline to determine whether the project complies with county regulations.
On April 4, the Gunnison County Planning Commission recommended to county commissioners that they approve the proposal for the pipeline if 15 conditions were met. Those conditions ranged from the energy companies delivering daily updates to the county during construction of the pipeline to implementing a detailed landscaping plan.
The conditions were the subject of discussions during the Gunnison County commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, April 15 as the board got an independent look at the proposal after holding several joint meetings on the topic with the Planning Commission.
Of particular concern was the scope of pending Colorado Division of Wildlife studies that the applicants will fund to a tune of $800,000. The scope of the studies has not yet been determined. During the meeting, county commissioner Jim Starr asked whether the DOW would study the impacts of the pipeline. County attorney David Baumgarten suggested if the commissioners wished to see that addressed, the county should contact the DOW. Starr agreed and noted, “I would like to see them include the part of the project in Gunnison County—any information we could gain would be helpful.”
Starr also asked how County Road 265, Buzzard Divide-Muddy Creek Road, would be maintained in a timely manner and if that was outlined in the Road Maintenance Agreement that the Planning Commission referred to in its conditions. Baumgarten said there has been a good history of working with the applicants to ensure timely maintenance of the road. In addition, the county can require permits for overweight vehicles. County assistant planning director Neal Starkebaum agreed. “It’s been a very good working relationship between public works and the applicant,” he said.
SG Interests vice president Robbie Guinn said the company would have grader equipment on hand to repair the road in a timely manner—he also noted that the main issue on the road isn’t typically maintenance, but speeding. “I would not anticipate getting complaints about the roads,” he said. “We’re going to get complaints about speeding. We’ve threatened our contractors within an inch of their lives about speeding on (Highway) 265 but we can’t control all the issues.”
The commissioners will also take the unusual step, on the Planning Commission’s recommendation, of requiring the applicants to fund a Mitigation Funding Agreement before permits are issued. The agreement means the applicant will agree to a stream water quality monitoring and mitigation plan, a landscaping plan and a monitoring and inspection compliance agreement, which is still being crafted.
During the meeting, Morse called the commissioners’ attention to HCCA and other environmental groups’ attempts to halt construction of the pipeline with a preliminary injunction and requested that if the injunction is granted, the county withhold its permits.
Baumgarten agreed that it was appropriate. “I think if a court enjoins construction, what follows is that the county’s permits will also be suspended,” he said.
Morse also took the opportunity to protest the placement of the pipeline in roadless areas and its federal approval. “What is legal is not the same as what is right,” he said and continued, “This is the wrong place for this pipeline. We request that the county deny this permit.”
After hearing from members of the public, the commissioners agreed unanimously to draft a resolution to formally adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendations. The possible passage of the resolution came with a number of caveats, including contacting the DOW about including Gunnison County in a project study; receiving a recommended scope of work for a consultant who will monitor the pipeline construction; exploring methods to re-coup staff expenses for the project; and the completion of the Mitigation Funding Agreement.
The resolution has been scheduled for the commissioners meeting on Tuesday, May 6.