Air study delays NW Colo. drilling plan |

Air study delays NW Colo. drilling plan

DENVER ” Concerns about the cumulative impact of energy development have prompted federal officials to take a closer look at the potential effects of roughly 3,000 new gas wells on air quality in northwest Colorado.

The Bureau of Land Management is working with the Environmental Protection Agency on an air-quality study as part of the review of development plans for federal land in the Little Snake resource area in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties.

The study likely will delay oil and gas drilling in the area because it will push back release of the final plan, originally expected in November.

Officials who reviewed the draft plan wanted a more in-depth study of potential impacts on air quality, because no such study had ever been done for that part of the state, said Larry Svoboda, director of the National Environmental Policy Act program for the regional EPA office in Denver.

Of particular concern, Svoboda said, are the five national parks and wilderness areas near the planning area.

Those areas enjoy the highest level of protection under federal clean-air laws.

Environmentalists and community activists who have criticized the BLM plan said the decision to do a thorough air-quality study underscores growing concerns about the effects of energy development in western Colorado. The western part of the state is one of the hot spots in the statewide natural gas boom.

“People are raising concerns about the impacts to air and water,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society. “I think it’s a theme you’re going to see into the future.”

Moffat County officials, though, said air-quality studies should be done for specific projects, not as part of the environmental impact statement.

“It looks like we’re being singled out,” Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray said. “To have a wrench tossed in like this at the end is pretty disappointing.”

The county commissioners recently lashed out at Gov. Bill Ritter and his administration for recommending that no drilling take place in the 81,000-acre Vermillion Basin, a scenic badlands in the planning area.

Commissioners said that would reduce the county’s share of taxes and mineral royalties.

The preliminary management plan, released in February, contains four alternatives. The one backed by the BLM projects 3,031 wells over 1.3 million acres over 20 years.

The BLM says the plan would close about 8.5 percent of the land to oil and gas drilling, up from about 4 percent now. The agency has proposed limiting drilling in the Vermillion basin to just 1 percent of the land at any one time.

But environmentalists note that the BLM said in 2000 that 77,000 acres in the basin contained “wilderness character.” A group of area residents called Friends of Northwest Colorado proposed an alternative that prohibits drilling in Vermillion Basin.

The BLM estimates there entire planning area has 9.9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.

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