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Drilling debate

by Dennis Webb/Special to the Daily

The state Department of Natural Resources is being alternately praised and criticized for recommending limited gas drilling on the Roan Plateau.The Department of Natural Resources – or DNR – recently called for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to allow drilling pads to be spaced no more densely than one every 160 acres, and to use directional drilling on the plateau, located northwest of Rifle.Such spacing limits would break new ground for the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. However, groups on opposing sides of the issue took as much notice of the fact that the state government has endorsed drilling on the plateau at all.Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, called it “good news” that the recommendation contemplates drilling on the plateau.”There’s a lot of groups that would prefer to see no development on the Roan Plateau,” he said.One of those groups is the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which is lamenting DNR’s stance.”The DNR comments are not adequate to give the Roan Plateau the protection it needs,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, Western Slope field coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition.”It’s been pretty clear that people don’t want drilling up on top,” he said.Then again, Kolbenschlag believes the 160-acre restriction “is better than what the BLM is planning for.”Reasonable by comparisonKolbenschlag believes the Bush administration’s desire to drill on the plateau will result in far more well pads for drilling, which can be up to an acre in size.”I think what the administration is going to go for on the Roan Plateau is going to make the Department of Natural Resources comments look reasonable,” he said.The DNR proposal would result in about 275 surface well pads on the Roan Plateau. It is signed by representatives of DNR agencies including the Division of Wildlife, Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.The comments are being considered by the BLM as it prepares a draft environmental impact statement for future management of the plateau. The document has encountered some delays and now is expected to be released in November.Joe Clugston, who just finished his second term on Rifle’s City Council, called the DNR proposal “about the best we can hope for.””If they went for 160 acres of directional drilling, I wouldn’t oppose them,” he said. “But it’s not just that. It’s surface preparation, it’s roads, it’s destruction – Oh, I shouldn’t say that – it’s disruption of surface habitat.”DNR contends that directional drilling will reduce surface problems by locating one multi-well pad per 160 acres.A proven technologyIn an eight-page letter outlining its views, DNR said it “recognizes that its proposed requirements and limits on the density of surface multi-well sites are unprecedented in BLM leasing practices.”But it adds, “The BLM should recognize that the application of recently proven directional drilling technology and practices is essential to limiting impacts upon wildlife and various multiple-use activities.”… Many significant rapid recent advances in directional drilling are being applied on lands adjacent to the Roan Cliffs, and the DNR believes this technology could be applied successfully to the top of Roan Plateau as well.”Greg Goodenow, a land use planner for the BLM’s Glenwood Springs Resource Area, confirmed that limiting drilling density hasn’t been the agency’s approach to managing surface impacts in the past. But it could happen in the future, he said.”It has been a concern of ours to limit disturbance, and I guess the issue is exactly how we do that,” he said.Up to now, the BLM has not used its regulatory authority to restrict well densities to one per 40 acres, he said.There is no density restriction on BLM land already being drilled on the south slope of the plateau, Goodenow said. Instead, due to concerns about visual impacts along the Interstate 70 corridor, the agency has required drilling sites to be located in areas where the topography or vegetation provide screening.The BLM doesn’t guarantee even one well pad per 160 acres, but the density on the south slope probably will be closer to one per 40 acres, Goodenow said.Drilling limitsSchnacke said directional drilling may not reduce surface impacts on the Roan Plateau.”The topography up there is different from some of the flat areas around the region where they’re doing directional drilling,” he said.That may result in wells being located even farther from the targeted drilling area.”Suddenly your directional string is very long and very expensive. It may not be economically feasible,” Schnacke said.As a result, 160-acre directional drilling could result in less gas being recovered than the DNR assumes possible, he said.The DNR estimates that the 44,000-acre plateau holds 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the underlying Williams Fork geological formation, with about 5.5 trillion cubic feet being recoverable.The recoverable gas has a rough potential value of $22 billion. This would produce $2.75 billion in federal royalties, which would be split 50-50 between the state and federal government after certain cost deductions.The wildlife factorOther economic considerations also are at work. DNR estimates that hunting brings in $3.8 million a year to the local economy, or more than $200 million over the time it would take to develop the plateau’s energy resources.”It is crucial that these values are protected and factored into the Roan Plateau planning document,” the DNR wrote.It contends that 160-acre spacing will minimize habitat fragmentation and reductions in critical habitat.To further protect wildlife, the DNR recommends against locating well sites in critical wildlife migration corridors, in winter and calving habitat used by elk and deer, and along river corridors and riparian areas, where there are unique native strains of Colorado River cutthroat trout.Said Schnacke, “I think the industry fully understands that there’s going to be areas off limits.”The DNR also recommends offsite habitat protection as a means of making up for habitat lost to drilling.Kolbenschlag doesn’t like that idea if it means protection of habitat somewhere other than the plateau.”People want the Roan Plateau protected. They don’t want something else off the plateau protected,” he said.Steve Smith, a field representative for the Western Colorado Congress environmental organization, praised the DNR’s wildlife recommendations. In effect, he added, they are Garfield County’s as well, because the county deferred to the state for comment on the issue of possible wildlife impacts from plateau drilling.”I think BLM needs to look at them very carefully and give them full attention,” he said of the DNR comments.Due to fears about erosion and visual scarring, the DNR also wrote that it “strongly supports measures that would prevent development from taking place on the highly visible slopes of the Roan Plateau.”We support the local communities in their belief that the cliffs and slopes of the Roan Plateau are an important visual resource worthy of protection,” it stated.Roan’s recreation options exploredby Dennis Webb/Special to the DailyThe state of Colorado is calling for summer travel on designated routes only on the Roan Plateau. It also recommends open travel over snow, and possibly the creation of one or two designated “play areas” where off-trail travel would be permitted on Hubbard Mesa, on the lower flanks of the plateau.The Colorado Department of Natural Resources makes the recommendations in comments submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is preparing a draft environmental impact statement on management of the plateau.”The Roan Plateau Management Plan/EIS should provide for enhanced recreational uses and other recognized multiple use activities (i.e. grazing),” states a Natural Resources management proposal signed by officials of its member agencies.This should include access to roads and trails already open to off-road vehicle use, the agency said.While off-trail travel should be prohibited on the plateau, over-the-snow travel should not face such a prohibition, it says.”It is common to public land management to permit cross-country travel over snow considering that over the snow travel causes little to no negative impact to the resource. Cross-country travel over snow is also largely self-limiting by terrain and vegetation type such that no limitations are usually required,” the DNR wrote.Pete Kolbenschlag, Western Slope field coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, welcomed the idea of designated travel routes. But it’s still to be determined which routes will be designated as open, he said. Environmentalists are urging that no more than 140 miles of routes be kept open on the plateau, and the rest be closed, he said.The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, has estimated that 256 miles of roads and routes run across the Roan Plateau, he said.Joe Clugston, a former Rifle City Council member who has expressed concern over the possibility of gas drilling on the plateau, doesn’t like the idea of closing roads on the plateau.”The public has a right to that area,” said Clugston. He has visited the plateau since 1948 and hasn’t seen an impact from vehicle travel.Kolbenschlag said he opposes both open travel over snow on the plateau and open motorized “play areas” on Hubbard Mesa. But he said he favors Natural Resources’ concept of designating Hubbard Mesa as a more intensive motorized recreation area.Natural Resources suggests creating a Hubbard Mesa Special Resource Management Area. Its letter notes that the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoors Recreation is initially recommending that Hubbard Mesa would be better off with designated routes and trails, and only one or two play areas open to off-trail use.Natural Resources, or DNR, also said there is concern that open recreational vehicle travel generally counteracts sustainable loop trail systems, while increasing resource damage and risk of collisions due to crossing traffic.”The DNR encourages the BLM to make consideration of a series of loop trail systems a top priority when planning for travel management on the Roan Plateau,” its proposal states.


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