The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward with environmental review on two applications for permits to drill gas wells in and around the Thompson Divide, despite the fact that both of the gas wells proposed by Houston-based energy company SG Interests would be drilled inside federally designated roadless areas …
… Officials at the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the Forest Service said Wednesday afternoon that they couldn’t immediately determine why the roadless status of the lands where SG is proposing to drill hadn’t yet raised concerns within the agency.
But Trey Schillie, the environmental coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the Forest Service, emphasized that the environmental review process for SG’s proposed leases in the Huntsman’s Ridge area is just beginning. During the upcoming “scoping” phase, he said, the agency will likely take public comment before beginning its environmental analysis.
Schillie also noted that while he couldn’t comment directly on the SG proposal, there are ways to extract natural gas even in roadless areas, such as by using directional drilling from a well pad outside of a roadless area.
“One scenario might be that roads are prohibited in the rule, but leasing isn’t prohibited, and maybe there is an alternative that you develop given the environmental constraints,” Schillie said.
Still, it remains unclear why no “red flags” have surfaced so far in the Forest Service review of SG’s proposal, particularly in the context of the Colorado Roadless Area Conservation Rule …
“Roadless consultation” clears way for drilling applications to advance
Message from Peter Hart, Staff Attorney for the Wilderness Workshop:
It’s hard to know which is worse: the government shutdown or the return to work. The Montrose BLM office’s first act after coming back to work last week, we’ve learned, was to allow two drilling proposals to move forward, despite their being located in federally inventoried roadless areas.
What’s more, one of the drill sites is in the Thompson Divide — specifically, in the Huntsman Ridge Roadless Area, just west of McClure Pass. The other is in the Pilot Knob Roadless Area, west of Paonia Reservoir.
It’s deja vu all over again with these proposals. The applicant is SG Interests, the same company that has been pushing to develop 18 leases in the heart of the Thompson Divide. As with those leases, SG sat on its three leases in the so-called Huntsman Unit until the 11th hour and then, in 2010, hastily applied to drill and secured a “suspension” from the BLM to allow more time to do it. (Click here for a map showing the location of the Huntsman Unit.)
The difference is that these two drill sites lie entirely within roadless areas. The leases were granted before the federal government had finalized the Roadless Rule of 2001, but carried stipulations that they should be subject to the Rule’s protections. Foremost among those protections: no roads!
In the order issued last Thursday, the BLM extended the suspensions on SG’s leases for another two years. The rationale given was that the leases “have made their way through roadless consultation.” What that means, as best as we can tell, is that the feds have concluded that roadless protections don’t apply to these leases, and with that pesky objection out of the way, SG’s drilling applications are now cleared for normal review.
(We’re still trying to get clarification on exactly who did the “roadless consultation” and how they went about it. Nobody’s talking at the Forest Service or the BLM, and it looks like we’re going to have to file a Freedom of Information request to find out.)
We at the Wilderness Workshop are committed to preventing drilling in the Thompson Divide and to protecting the integrity of roadless areas in our region. We may have to challenge this decision through an appeal or lawsuit. We’ll let you know how you can help when we know more.
As agency studies leases, fears of roadless area drilling increase [subscribers only]
… Some of the oil and gas leases at stake were issued in 2000 and are owned by SG Interests, with Falcon Seaboard Oil and Gas also having an interest in them …
… Petrox Resources, which received a lease in 2006, also has proposed drilling in Pilot Knob …
… The national roadless rule was issued in 2001. The SG Interests leases were issued ahead of time with lease notices saying they were subject to interim Forest Service suspension of road-building in roadless areas, and also would be subject to the final roadless rule once issued.
That final rule ultimately was buffeted by conflicting court rulings, leading to some leases in roadless areas, including the Petrox lease, being issued without road-building restrictions when the 2001 rule was enjoined in court. Eventually, however, the rule was upheld in court appeals.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has adopted a Colorado-specific roadless rule that stands in place of the national rule. But Hart said it also bars road-building for oil and gas drilling.
The controversy over the status of so-called “gap” leases like the one held by Petrox has gone on for a while. But the 2000 leases raise a different issue.
Forest Service Paonia District Ranger Levi Broyles said lease notices differ from stipulations imposed by the Forest Service. Stipulations are a kind of covenant the Forest Service imposes to protect surface resources, he said. He described the lease notices as simply a buyer-beware warning to companies.
“We need to find out what kind of weight a lease notice contains,” he said.
Also in question is whether future regulations can be enacted on a lease property right that is being conveyed, he said.
Local Forest Service officials consulted with the agency’s regional office as required under the Colorado rule, and the agency decided to proceed with an environmental review of the drilling proposals. Broyles said that will include a chance for the public to comment before any decision is made.
… In an interview, Hart said the decision “is a little confounding.” It “suggests” that the regional office of the Forest Service believes the leases could be approved, he said. But one lease is in the Huntsman Ridge Roadless Area while the other is in the Pilot Knob Roadless Area, according to Hart. Federal law doesn’t allow timber cutting and road building in federally inventoried roadless areas, he said …
… Hart said Wilderness Workshop is weighing its options on the two latest reviews to be cleared by the BLM. “We’re going to argue that the Forest Service should undertake a full [Environmental Impact Statement] on this,” he said, referring to the most thorough federal review process …