Drilling on Colorado refuge delayed until August | VailDaily.com

Drilling on Colorado refuge delayed until August

DENVER, Colorado ” A Canadian firm has agreed to not drill in Colorado’s Baca National Wildlife Refuge until August.

Toronto-based Lexam Energy Exploration had planned to drill at least two exploratory wells in the refuge, next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado.

Stefan Spears, Lexam’s vice president of strategic development, said Tuesday the company agreed to delay drilling as it tries to work through legal roadblocks.

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Citizens for San Luis Valley-Water Protection Coalition are seeking a preliminary injunction against drilling as part of a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

The two groups filed suit seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the site, to do another environmental analysis, arguing the initial review wasn’t thorough.

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That analysis, released in October, found the drilling would have no significant effect on the San Luis Valley refuge.

The environmental groups want the Fish and Wildlife Service to examine the effects drilling would have on aquifer systems, wetlands, and wildlife in the area.

“I think we have a view of the conclusion at this point,” Spears said. “Not as soon as we like, but we’re closer in the process.”

Lexam acquired the mineral rights in the 1990s in what was then the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. The land was later acquired by the federal government to preserve the terrain and geological features responsible for the sand dunes. Some of the land became part of the national park, with the rest becoming the refuge in 2004.

Federal law gives mineral-rights holders the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

“We think we went through a very exhaustive environmental assessment that’s very thorough,” said refuge manager Mike Blenden.

Christine Canaly, director of the Ecosystem Council, has said the federal government should study buying the mineral rights as part of a comprehensive plan to manage the refuge, though its worth could be difficult to determine.

“We will entertain a bid if one comes, but we haven’t heard anything from the federal government coming from that direction,” Spears said.

Blenden said some federal studies estimate the likelihood of finding marketable gas or oil underneath the refuge at about 5 to 15 percent.

The Baca refuge, about 200 miles southwest of Denver, is home to several colonies of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, a candidate species for the endangered list. It’s also used by migratory birds, burrowing owls, songbirds and elk.

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