It will likely take between 18 months and two-and-a-half years before an environmental assessment of the Thompson Divide area can be completed and natural gas drilling can take place, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
Houston-based SG Interests filed two applications for a permit to drill (APD) in the Thompson Divide area with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service since Oct. 17. The company plans to file seven more in the upcoming months, according to SG Interests Vice President Robbie Guinn. The Thompson Divide includes 221,500 acres of federal land running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties.
Once the applications are deemed complete, an environmental assessment of the area will take place. That usually takes between a few months to two years and it is the last step before gas well construction can occur.
However, SG Interests’ plans are “fairly sizable,” and the more in-depth environmental analysis required will take longer than typical assessments, Fitzwilliams said.
The realization came after SG Interests met with Forest Service officials last week to inform the government agency of the company’s development plans.
Due to the greater amount of time needed to complete the assessment, SG Interests will file requests with the BLM to suspend their leases, which are due to expire on June 1. The request likely will be granted, Fitzwilliams said.
During the meeting, SG Interests representatives were open to hiring a third-party contractor to perform the assessment in an effort to quicken the process, Fitzwilliams said. SG Interests can opt to hire a third-party contractor for the job, but then it will have to foot the bill instead of the Forest Service. Oil and gas companies often choose that option because the Forest Service does not prioritize completing an assessment over other duties, and in turn it takes longer to complete, he said.
In the meeting, Forest Service and oil company representatives also discussed ways to make the process transparent to the public in light of heavy opposition to drilling in the area, Fitzwilliams said.
“Everybody agreed it’s going to be vital [for the project] to be transparent,” Fitzwilliams said.
The idea is to provide information on the Internet during each stage of the process, allowing public comments on those pages and creating an open forum, Fitzwilliams said.
Once all of the applications to drill are filed, the Forest Service will meet with SG Interests again to develop a master plan, which will include a detailed timeline of the process and how information will be made available to the public. That will likely happen after the holidays, Fitzwilliams said.