Coalition says Forest Service oil and gas lease plan not strict enough

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A draft Forest Service oil and gas leasing plan that will guide energy development on public lands for the next 15 to 20 years is being criticized by a coalition of environmental groups for not being strict enough.  

The groups, led by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, sent the White River National Forest a 76-page document last week before a public comment deadline on the energy development plan. 

Forest officials are currently performing an environmental impact statement (EIS) assessing future mineral leasing on 2.3 million acres of White River National Forest land that covers Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Summit, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Gunnison, Routt and Moffat counties.

The current draft plan considers a range of options, including one that outlaws all new leases, but the preferred alternative allows development under updated regulations and would make 260,308 acres available to future oil and gas leases. It would also legally close 800,555 acres to oil and gas leases. The remaining 1.2 million acres would be temporarily closed to development based on the discretion of forest officials, who could open the land up for future leases after vetting the areas further, said David Francomb, a deputy district ranger for the Aspen Sopris Ranger District in the White River National Forest.

The groups’ 76-page document outlined reasons why the agency should put a stop to oil and gas leasing altogether.

In their comments, the conservation groups argue that there are already 130,000 acres of White River lands leased for oil and gas, of which about 70,000 still haven’t been developed, calling into question the need for further leasing. They also point out that 95 percent of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands surrounding the White River National Forest with high oil and gas potential have already been leased, with a relatively small proportion of that in production.

The coalition also warns that the benefits of additional leasing would be outweighed by the loss of recreation and other values on the White River National Forest, and that the draft plan doesn’t adequately take into account the negative environmental and economic impacts that would result from oil and gas development.

If any additional leasing is allowed to occur, the conservation groups want stricter limits than those proposed in the plan’s preferred alternative. For example, the draft plan restricts development in roadless areas through a stipulation that prohibits occupancy or disturbance on all or part of the lease surface. The coalition argues that companies can still extract the resources under leases restricted by the stipulation through use of directional drilling from sites outside the roadless areas. That could potentially disturb the protected area, the document says.

The coalition is led by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and includes the Sierra Club, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Natural Resources Defense Council, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Colorado Environmental Coalition and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

In addition to the document, forest officials also received numerous letters from the public and environmental and government groups regarding the draft, Francomb said. Those comments are currently being categorized by a private company, which is performing a content analysis, and it will then give the results to forest officials, who will make changes to the draft based on the feedback, Francomb said. Once any necessary changes are made, the plan will be finalized, which could happen as early as next summer, he said.

The new assessment is a revision of a plan completed in 1993, which has recently been criticized by the Wilderness Workshop for not properly protecting environmentally sensitive areas in the Thompson Divide from oil and gas development. SG Interests, a Houston-based oil and gas company, has filed three applications for permits to drill in the area and three notices of staking, which are filed before the applications.

The revision is needed because of changes that have occurred over the past two decades that impact environmental considerations of the area. Those include technological advancements in oil and gas development and forest management policies, according to a draft of the document created by Forest Service officials.