May 2008

Public lands expect more energy production

By Gail Binkly

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As energy development increases on private lands, interest is growing on public lands as well – though not at the pace seen in areas such as Rifle, Colo., according to Matt Janowiak, assistant manager for physical resources for San Juan Public Lands.

“We’re seeing infill drilling on the Fruitland formation on the San Juan Basin,” he said. “We’re seeing steady drilling over in the McElmo Dome for CO2, probably four to eight wells a year.”

There is increasing interest in natural gas, though some is purely speculative. “People think there’s more gas on the Paradox Basin, but they’re not submitting applications to drill more wells, just talking,” he said.

The public is paying more attention to energy issues on public lands. There was an outcry of opposition to drilling in the HD Mountains west of Durango, but much of the area was already leased, and drilling will go forward, with mitigation measures to protect the land.

“The HDs hit a real sore point because of the roadless area that was part of the project proposal,” Janowiak said.

But with more people engaging in recreation on public lands everywhere, energy development inevitably becomes more controversial.

“When you go to the Glade [north of Dolores] or another place like that, you’re talking about people’s playground,” Janowiak said. “In Dry Creek Basin now there is a hut-to-hut biketrail route. That didn’t happen before. As recreation expands into these other areas, there are going to be some more conflicts.”

But oil and gas extraction provides ample revenues.

BLM mineral royalties/revenues for Fiscal Year 2007 amounted to $3.01 million in Dolores County, $8.17 million in La Plata County, and $22.28 million in Montezuma County, according to the San Juan Public Lands Center.

Half of the royalties paid to the federal government for mineral production are returned to the state of Colorado and distributed to local areas through energy-impact grants, Janowiak said.

Jamie Sellar-Baker, assistant Dolores District ranger, agreed that oil and gas development can be beneficial.

“We would hope to see some level of development to help support the economy of the region, but not to where we have irreversible damage occurring,” she said.

“Oil and gas are part of that multipleuse environment and the public needs to know that.”

All San Juan Public Lands are available for leasing, except for a few special pieces such as wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, and – at least under the preferred alternative for the new management plan – in habitat for the rare Gunnison sage grouse.

Most of the land managed by the BLM is already leased, according to Janowiak, but no new leases are being issued for San Juan National Forest lands until the new management plan is approved.

The public has many concerns about drilling on public lands, but there are numerous measures that can be taken to minimize impacts, Sellar-Baker said.

“I’ve worked with oil and gas over 20 years,” she said. “There’s some wonderful mitigation out there to handle impacts such as visual, noise, revegetation.”

Stipulations can be placed on the companies mandating no surface occupancy, controlled surface use, and time of use for particular leases. When the Forest Service or BLM receives an application to drill, it prepares an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement and takes public comment. During that process, additional protections called conditions of approval are developed.

Sellar-Baker spoke to the Montezuma County commissioners recently to give them a “heads-up” that public interest in energy activities on public lands is increasing.

“It might be good to have some outreach this summer,” she said. “People will want to know what’s going on.”