Forest Service revisits policy on gas drilling |

Forest Service revisits policy on gas drilling

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The U.S. Forest Service is using a break in the natural gas boom to reassess what lands in the White River National Forest should be open to drilling.

The agency is updating a 17-year-old document that determines what lands are available for leasing for gas exploration. White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the document will help him determine where drilling is appropriate and under what conditions.

The drilling activity that swept western Colorado in the middle part of this decade spilled into the national forest to a higher degree than anticipated. A 1993 leasing availability decision predicted that no more than 23 wells would be drilled in the White River National Forest by 2013. Agency officials stuck with that forecast when they approved a broader forest management plan in 2002.

The prediction proved woefully low in just a few years. In 2002, only one new well had been drilled in the national forest over the prior decade and two additional drilling applications had been filed, according to Forest Service documents. There are now 82 drilled wells and scores more have been approved, according to David Francomb, the Forest Service staffer leading the leasing availability update.

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Forest Service officials decided the 1993 plan needed to be revisited because conditions changed so drastically, Francomb said.

The agency, headquartered in Glenwood Springs, has been gathering updated information for an environmental impact statement since October 2007. The “reasonable, foreseeable development scenario” now envisions 901 wells drilled on the forest, although many would be drilled from the same pads, meaning less surface disturbance, Francomb said. The scenario envisions 123 pads for those wells.

The Forest Service team is looking at every section of the 2.3 million acre national forest, which sprawls from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and from Summit County to the east to the Rifle area in the west.

Fitzwilliams said the agency is legally bound to consider availability on all forest lands that aren’t closed legislatively, like specially-protected Wilderness. Lands that have been available for oil and gas leasing in the past but haven’t attracted exploration and don’t hold much promise of production can be withdrawn.

And that’s why the study is so important to both the oil and gas industry and conservation groups. Both factions will be more than spectators on the sideline. They will make sure their voices are heard in the public scoping that must be part of the Forest Service’s process.

The Divide Creek area south of Silt and Rifle has been the hotspot in the White River for well drilling. However, gas deposits are believed to extend into the Crystal River drainage. Gas producers hold 81 leases covering about 100,000 acres in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale. A citizens’ group called the Thompson Divide Coalition wants to prevent drilling on the leases and protect another 121,300 acres in that area.

Fitzwilliams acknowledged that “you can’t go to Thompson Divide and not be concerned. I get that.”

“We have a really good sense of what the issues are,” he said, speaking of the forest as a whole.

But there are competing demands on public lands, he said. The Forest Service credo is “land of many uses.”

Leases don’t automatically mean there will be drilling. Only a small portion of leased forest lands have seen any activity. Leases are good for 10 years. If there is no development of wells, the lands can be re-nominated for lease.

In addition to updating where drilling can take place, the plan will determine how it can take place. The Forest Service places conditions – or stipulations, in agency jargon – on drillers in certain areas. Effects on wildlife and habitat will be a major consideration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife have been invited to help the Forest Service with planning.

“We want them in the process throughout this,” Fitzwilliams said.

The White River is proposing to use up to 29 stipulations on drilling, one of the toughest being no surface occupancy. But Fitzwilliams said he cannot be so restrictive that his action is a de facto ban on drilling.

“If I slap [No Surface Occupancy] on the whole forest, it’s a slam dunk appeal,” he said.

The planning process is scheduled to continue throughout 2010. The soonest a decision will be made is early 2011 with implementation later that year, according to the Schedule of Proposed Actions, a sort of agenda that the Forest Service provides to the public.

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