NORTH FORK VALLEY – The Bureau of Land Management earlier this month released its Draft Environmental Analysis (EA) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on the leasing of mineral rights beneath approximately 24,000 acres of public and private land in the North Fork of the Gunnison.
Natural gas developers nominated the parcels to be leased last year.
Citizens for a Healthy Community, based in Paonia, issued a statement saying, in part: “We were dismayed to note that the BLM only removed about 20 percent of the proposed parcels from their leasing plan, disregarding many thousands of comments . . . expressing not only displeasure with the decision to lease, but also providing appropriate, reasonable and detailed reasoning for the request [to remove the parcels]. The BLM demonstrated a callousness to the wishes of the citizenry in ignoring that commentary.”
In fact, the BLM eliminated only one parcel out of the 22 proposed. According to Barbara Sharrow, Field Manager of the BLM’s Uncompahgre Office, which received the comments and prepared the EA, the agency’s Preferred Alternative includes removing one large parcel on the south shore of Paonia Reservoir due to “steep slopes”; the terrain is simply too steep to accommodate a drill pad. Portions of other parcels were similarly removed under the steep slopes provision, said BLM Public Affairs Specialist Shannon Borders.
But overall, the Finding of No Significant Impact outraged North Fork denizens, who see the lease tracts, some of which are adjacent to the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford, as a threat to the quality of life and agricultural identity of the North Fork.
Sharrow said in an interview, “Leasing in and of itself doesn’t bring any surface development. That means we’re dealing with a lot of ‘what ifs.’”
Activists say that kind of logic is disingenuous. “The BLM’s strategy on this,” said the CHC release, “is that simply offering leases has no impact, and that it is only when an Application for Permit to Drill (APD) is submitted that the impacts to surrounding lands may be realized. Unfortunately, at that time, the public can no longer intervene, with the exception of demanding strong stipulations or controls on any proposed drilling. At that point however, the cat is really out of the bag. This is but one reason why we are so keen on having the parcels delisted now.”
CHC is asking concerned citizens to write again to the BLM before the April 6 comment deadline to demand that all 22 parcels be removed from the lease sale, which is scheduled for August 9 of this year.
Sharrow countered in our phone interview that the “lands open for leasing were identified in the 1989 Resource Management Plan (RMP). We made the decision back then what lands would be open [for leasing] and what lands wouldn’t. There is further NEPA analysis [National Environmental Policy Act] done if a lease is purchased and there is an application to drill. We can’t just arbitrarily take [parcels] off the table. We have to be very careful, or we will get sued on the other side.”
The 1989 RMP is currently overdue for revision, a fact that is not lost on leasing opponents. The Uncompahgre Field Office is working on the revision currently. Oil and gas opponents point out that the agency’s Draft Oil and Gas Technical Report is even older; it is dated 1987, when current practices of hydraulic fracturing were unknown.
CHC Boardmember Daniel Feldman commented this week: “Any reasonable person could see that drilling on these parcels surrounding the towns of the North Fork will be very significant and thus would require the preparation of a more exhaustive EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. CHC believes an EIS would uncover significant impacts to the community that would call for the withdrawal of all these leases.”
Asked if the BLM had a working, or legal definition of “significant,” Sharrow said, yes. “It is defined to us. But it doesn’t dictate specifically for each resource, each analysis. It is a factor in our decision.”
Sharrow also pointed out that only about 900 acres of the 24,000 acres in the Preferred Alternative are split-estate lands, where the surface is private and the subsurface minerals are owned by the United States. The rest are public lands, surface and subsurface. “We don’t have organic orchards on public land,” she said.
That, of course, is one of the points being put forward by CHC and others concerned about gas development in the North Fork. Another CHC Boardmember, Mitchell Gershten, is an organic farmer, an orchardist, and an M.D. He has pointed out that there are scores of commercial organic businesses in the North Fork and that threats to irrigation and drinking water, to the air and to his bees, were ignored in the BLM process.
“The notion that industrial gas field operations would have no impact on this unique, agriculturally replete region,” Gershten told The Watch, “annually supplying many thousands of Coloradans with fresh fruit, produce, cheese and wine, shows that despite their rhetoric, the BLM has a one-note agenda, namely to elevate resource development of public lands above all other legitimate uses.”
Two statements in the FONSI document give leasing opponents particular cause for alarm. In the first, on public health and safety, the FONSI reads: “The effects of oil and gas leasing are well known and documented. Oil and gas development is a common practice in the area and no significant impacts to health and safety are known.” Opponents counter that deleterious impacts to air, water, wildlife, landscapes, and quality of life are well known anywhere there is intensive natural gas development, and that impacts include road-building, truck traffic, noxious weeds, noise, lights, fumes, leaks, spills, storm-water runoff, pipelines, pump stations and socio-economic changes, not to mention the undocumented but suspected effects of fracking chemicals.
The second paragraph addresses the likelihood that the proposed North Fork leases will be “controversial.” “Effects on the quality of the human environment are not likely to be high controversial,” the FONSI states.
CHC has scheduled a half-day forum, “Understanding the Risks of Oil and Gas Development,” at Hotchkiss High School for Saturday, March 31, 12:30-5:00 p.m. Presenters will include Dr. Theo Colborn, founder and president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, and expert on the effects of the chemicals used in drilling, fracking and production of natural gas.
John Fenton, a farmer and rancher from Pavillion, Wyo., where the EPA suspects groundwater contamination from fracked wells.
Kyle Tisdel, staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, and legal council for CHC.
Calvin Tillman, former mayor of Dish, Texas, a small community transformed into an industrial zone by natural gas development.
And Deborah Rogers, an authority on the economics of shale gas drilling.
According to Borders, the timeline leading up to the Aug. 9 lease sale looks like this: Public comment on the Draft EA must by received by April 6; the BLM reviews the comments; there is a 30-day protest period, during which individuals may protest the inclusion of one or more parcels in the sale; the BLM responds to the protests; and then “the state officer will decide prior to the lease sale, will sign a decision record” indicating the agency’s decision to go forward with the Industry-Proposed Alternative (22 parcels, 30,000 acres), the Preferred Alternative (21 parcels, 24,000 acres), or the No Action Alternative, the one CHC so ardently supports.