HomeNews Gunnison County voices concern over state issued gas pad permit
Gunnison County voices concern over state issued gas pad permit
Written by Seth Mensing
Wednesday, 03 October 2012
“It’s upside-down to me”
Gunnison County is treading lightly in its appeal of a decision by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to permit a natural gas pad in an area of the North Fork Valley that the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife views as vital habitat and the U.S. Forest Service has yet to weigh in on.
County deputy attorney Art Trezise told the county commissioners at a regular meeting on Tuesday, October 2 the application to appeal the decision was received by the state September 28 and would be followed by a scheduled meeting within 20 days. “We had this permit approved by the COGCC for this particular well and the issue that was troubling to us … is that it seemed to be premature, given that it’s on federal subsurface and surface rights, so it’s a federal well in every sense, and the feds haven’t completed their own evaluation process,” Trezise said. “One of the themes that has been coming out of our office is that with all of these regulations, the idea should really be … measure twice and cut once.” Trezise explained that the county wouldn’t be challenging the permit issued by the state, but added, “The timing seems a little peculiar and the lack of information seems a little peculiar, particularly considering the position the Colorado Parks and Wildlife have identified some significant impacts they really didn’t think could be mitigated through best management practice.” On a form filed with the COGCC, the consultation with the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPW) showed concern with the impacts the location of the three-acre well pad would have on elk that might spend the winter in the area and other big game animals that use the south-facing slope where the pad is proposed. Although SG Interests, the gas company proposing the pad, submitted a list of best management practices (BMPs) to mitigate some of the DPW’s concerns, the agency responded, “The BMPs submitted by the operator do not address the cumulative impacts of increasing well pad density, and ancillary facilities (roads, pipelines, compressors, etc.) on the … wildlife habitats in the area.” DPW goes on to say that scientific studies are continually reinforcing that “adverse impacts to wildlife increase dramatically when well pad densities exceed one pad per square mile and road densities exceed 0.5 mile per square mile.” The DPW report also notes, “The well pad density within the area is increasing and rapidly approaching a density where BMPs alone will no longer be sufficient to maintain existing wildlife populations in the area.” DPW then asks SG to take a big-picture view of all their planned development and come up with a mitigation plan to minimize the impacts to wildlife. During an onsite visit with the operator in April, DPW representatives identified some alternate areas for the pad that might reduce the impact on wintering big game. County attorney David Baumgarten, acting as the local government designee, asked for a formal consultation with DPW to discuss the situation. DPW also asked that SG send its produced water to a disposal well by pipe, rather than truck, to minimize the impacts of truck traffic on wildlife. With the onset of the off-season for gas development, Baumgarten has taken the position that there isn’t going to be much activity in developing the well near Henderson Creek, so it wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look at the information available and terms of the permit. Trezise told the commissioners the Forest Service, which is responsible for overseeing surface development on the site, was just starting to look at the proposed plan and it was unclear if they would decide the plan needed an environmental assessment, which would delay the approval but might inform the agency of how appropriate gas development on the scale being proposed is in the area. “We don’t know [if the Planning Commission is going to approve the permit application or not], but we do know that there’s some information out there that we don’t have the benefit of in reaching that decision,” Trezise said. The scoping process for the Forest Service’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process had closed, according to assistant community development director Neal Starkebaum, who had spoken with Ryan Taylor, a geologist with the Paonia Ranger District. He said a decision on how the Forest Service would proceed could come at any time. In the meantime, the county is waiting to see how the Forest Service responds and plans to make its case at a hearing before the COGCC in the next month. But county manager Matthew Birnie recalled a meeting with COGCC director David Neslin when it was made clear that the state’s concern is maintaining its timeline. “It was pretty clear that they don’t really want anything to slow down their process,” Birnie said. Commissioner Hap Channell asked if the county was just planning to comment during the hearing on a common practice at the COGCC. Trezise said what made the situation unusual is the comment from the DPW related to wildlife. “I understand this is the first ever, given they’re commenting on issues that should be addressed by the NEPA scoping. It just seemed curious that they were forging ahead with that information,” he said. The proposal is also unique because both surface and subsurface rights to the land belong to the Forest Service, which often controls the surface rights but lacks control over mineral rights. County Commissioner Paula Swenson said when she, Baumgarten and Birnie sat down with the COGCC last year it was stressed that communication and good information should be a cornerstone of the process before any decisions are made. “It does seem quite odd,” she said. Channell asked for the county representatives at the COGCC hearing to convey the broader issue with the permit, and not focus too heavily on the application in front of them. “We may actually comment on this being a practice that they follow, not just regarding this application, but it seems that it’s upside-down to me,” he said, referring to the COGCC permit approval coming before the Forest Service had come to a conclusion on SG’s application. “With all due respect to their timeline, we ought to make that point.”