New EIS replaces antiquated 1993 version

The White River National Forest has released its final Record of Decision (ROD) for future oil and gas leasing on 2.2 million acres with only a few changes from a draft released a year ago.

The decision finalizes the analysis that revises the WRNF’s 1993 oil and gas leasing final environmental impact statement (FEIS) and record of decision (ROD), according to a Forest Service statement.

The ROD emphasizes the conservation of roadless areas and the “existing natural character of the White River National Forest while providing oil and gas development opportunities on lands that have proven to be productive in the past 15-20 years,” the statement added.

Much of the White River National Forest including the majority of the Thompson Divide area will now be off limits to future oil and gas development.

The ROD legally closes more than 800,000 acres including congressionally designated wilderness, 
permitted ski areas, campgrounds, and administrative sites to oil and gas leasing. It also precludes leasing in nearly 1.3 million acres through management direction for the next 20 years or so — the authority for permanent withdrawal rests in the hands of Congress.

But more than 194,000 acres will be administratively available for leasing, of which 118,613 acres are currently not leased. Another 75,000 acres in designated roadless areas were also made available for oil and gas leasing, but would have a no surface occupancy (NSO) stipulation.

“The lands made available in this decision have shown a demonstrated production potential over the last decade or so. If conditions or technology changes in the future, this decision can be revisited to address these changing circumstances,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, WRNF supervisor, in a prepared statement.

The final ROD includes maps with stipulations for protecting surface resources, and states that existing leases on the forest are viewed as being valid. Fitzwilliams said direction came from the regional office on this matter.

“The existing leases … are valid under the 1993 leasing decision,” he said Thursday.

But this wouldn’t affect a recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) draft EIS that found 25 contested leases in the Thompson Divide should be either wholly or partially cancelled.

Overall, the BLM EIS analyzed 65 leases issued in the White River National Forest since 1993, and deemed that many did not go through the proper National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.

Zane Kessler, executive director of Carbondale’s Thompson Divide Coalition, said Thursday that the Forest Service has done an excellent job of holding the middle ground on this issue, and should be recognized for doing so.

“This codifies what we already know — that the Thompson Divide just isn’t the right place for oil and gas development,” Kessler noted in a statement. “It is a clear indication that overwhelming public support for protecting the Thompson Divide can and should carry significant weight under NEPA.”

He pointed out that the ROD still allows for future leasing in many high-value areas of the Piceance Basin, but, protects areas with marginal mineral reserves to the West.

“In doing so, it helps to establish a greater level of balance for our nation’s most heavily recreated forest,” Kessler’s statement noted.

Calls for BLM to follow Forest Service lead

Peter Hart, attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, called the Forest Service decision a “huge victory” that has been a long time coming. He added that the BLM should follow the Forest Service’s lead in finding drilling inappropriate in roadless areas in and around the Thompson Divide.

“BLM should follow this direction as it considers canceling leases it sold illegally in the Thompson Divide and local roadless areas,” Hart noted in a statement. “We’ll need to continue pushing for that result, though, with all of the strong support for protection of those areas that drove this good Forest Service decision.”

It’s a clear sign that the Forest Service doesn’t believe the Thompson Divide is appropriate for future leasing, Hart said Thursday.

“Wilderness Workshop initiated a campaign pushing the White River National Forest to revise its stale and outdated oil and gas leasing plan in early 2000s. By then the agency had already approved more wells than it ever analyzed in that plan,” he noted in the statement. “With issuance of a final decision today, that nearly-fifteen year campaign has achieved meaningful success.”

Seven objections were received after the release of the draft ROD, but a review that was completed in June “found no violation of law, regulation, or policy and upheld the draft ROD, with instructions,” the Forest Service statement added.

“The public input we received and the consideration of other resource values such as recreation and wildlife was an important part of my decision-making process,” Fitzwilliams noted in the statement. “In this decision, I sincerely tried to be sensitive to the concerns expressed by those who participated in the process. In the end, my responsibility as forest supervisor is to consider this input along with the results of the environmental analysis and the laws governing national forest management.”

Economics don’t support extraction in Thompson Divide

A 2014 mineral assessment of hydrocarbon potential in the Thompson Divide — based on natural gas prices over $4 — found oil and gas development would not be a fruitful endeavor. That study was conducted by Denver-based MHA Petroleum Consultants.

“[It was found] to be uneconomical due to the very low potential of finding substantial, commercially viable oil and gas reserves combined with the ‘prohibitively expensive’ capital investments required,” Kessler added in his statement. “That assessment was based on $4.10 natural gas prices. The price of gas today is $2.17.”

Another analysis of the economic potential of oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide that was prepared for Pitkin County and completed in early 2014, concluded that extraction of shale gas in the region would not be economically beneficial.  

“It is my opinion that attempting to develop oil and gas on the subject leases is not an economically viable venture and that it is highly likely that any attempts to develop the leases would lead to a substantial loss of money for the operator,”  Dr. John D. Wright, of the Wright Consulting Company, Inc., said in the study.

More than a million acres of the land made off limits by the final ROD were found to be “not geologically conducive for natural gas production,” Forest Service’s statement noted.

“This final decision concludes a long and complex process.  We have spent the better part of five years gathering data, analyzing and considering public input,” Fitzwilliams noted in a statement.  “I believe the decision outlined in the Final ROD represents a balance between providing opportunities for oil and gas development and protecting the natural resources of the White River National Forest.”

collin@aspendailynews.com