When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came to the North Fork last week, staff members spent hour after hour explaining processes, while what many in the community wanted to know was does anyone in the BLM care about the people and land in the North Fork Valley for anything other than making money from oil and gas leasing?
Perhaps for those who have trepidation about oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley, Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman expressed it best.
He explained at the end of a nearly two-hour meeting with the BLM that the reason why so many people, about 200, came to listen was because of their "attachment to the land." It was also because of the values the people share here. "Everything that really matters here has nothing to do with money ... It's about living in a place where it's great for your kids ... That's why people are so angry." They feel like they have so very much to lose.
It certainly could not have been easy for state director Helen Hankins, field manager Barb Sharrow, deputy state director Lonny Bagley, district manager Lori Armstrong and communications director Steven Hall to attend meeting after meeting while people in the audience seemed to not accept their lengthy procedural explanations. The BLM answered questions from town council members only, making it clear they would not address any questions from the audience.
When Paonia trustee Eric Goold stated that the town did not have the infrastructure to handle the increase in heavy truck traffic, Sharrow responded that it would be a great opportunity for the town and county to come up with a plan and figure out how they would handle that.
At the Crawford work session, Sharrow told the trustees that often times the operators greatly improve the roads.
Goold asked if it was true that the oil and gas industry doesn't have to follow the Clean Water Act. Bagley responded there are oil and gas operations that are exempt.
Asked how ditches so necessary to traditional and organic farmers would be protected, Bagley said the wells would be located far enough away to keep the ditches safe.
Sharrow told every council the BLM has no control over the 44 percent of private mineral ownership. A land man can make a deal with a private land owner and be drilling within 30 days. The point was that the citizens should appreciate all the safeguards the BLM offers to the towns and its residents through its rules and regulations, as well as those of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the federal and state governments.
Hankins chided the people in the North Fork Valley who would rather wage a political battle by going to Washington, D.C. than sit down and talk to the state director or field manager. If the sale goes through, those in opposition could choose to carry on the fight through political means, litigation or legislation. But she said it's been her experience that the best option is to try to work things out with all parties involved.
Paonia trustee Ross King replied, "I agree with you Helen." He believes the state director could help bring all the factions together. He requested that all parcels be deferred until the RMP [Resource Management Plan] is finished. "If anything goes wrong, people in this valley will pay the price," King said.
In a response to Hankins' view, Jim Ramey, director of Citizens For A Healthy Community (CHC), said last Friday, "We were greatly disappointed that state director Hankins and UFO manager Sharrow ignored our request for them to meet with community residents. We have consistently called upon the BLM to hold a public hearing in order to communicate directly with the concerned residents of the North Fork Valley, and the UFO and BLM's Colorado office have consistently refused."
CHC wanted the BLM to hold a public hearing with local residents. Hankins said she and Sharrow had met with residents who contacted them, and the BLM had leaders attend a forum sponsored by the Delta County Commissioners, a hearing conducted by Sen. Gail Schwartz at Hotchkiss High School and the BLM's Regional Advisory Council meeting.
Both state and national BLM officials have been notified in writing that if all 20 parcels and 20,555 acres in the North Fork Valley are not removed from the BLM's February oil and gas lease sale, CHC is "calling on BLM to issue its final decision so that it may pursue legal action as a last resort to protect the community."
Mayor Schwieterman asked why the leases are important, and then answered his own question by stating that the leases are used as a commodity to improve a company's positioning in the futures market. He concluded, "It doesn't seem right."
Sharrow answered, "I totally agree with you. My staff has been put through hell last year just so some company can bolster their revenue." The North Fork Valley parcels are rated low to moderate in their potential resource value. Just because there are leases doesn't mean there are minerals there, she explained.
Asked what resources would be available for owners whose property values could go down, Bagley said he didn't know.
Paonia trustee Amber Kleinman suggested fracking could affect organic certifications. Kleinman said the COGCC has listed 2,078 spills in the last five years in Colorado with 17 percent of those coming in contact with ground water. Spills in Weld County came in contact with ground water 40 percent of the time.
Sharrow said the operator is required to have a hazardous material plan to cover cleanup of spills.
Sharrow said the coal mines are here and a good neighbor and the oil and gas industry could also be a good neighbor.
If was often repeated that the BLM is mandated to go forward if parcels are nominated because of the national focus on independence from foreign oil.
When asked if the protests filed would have an impact, Sharrow said the BLM received 150 protest letters and it had a huge impact on her staff.
Schwieterman clarified the question addressed what impact the protests would have on the decision about the North Fork Valley parcels in the sale.
To that Sharrow said the BLM is taking a close look at the protest letters.
When the BLM team spoke to the Crawford board of trustees last Tuesday, Hankins said the BLM had written 50 pages in its Environmental Assessment (EA) Appendix G to answer questions, concerns and comments.
Crawford trustee James Sorensen asked how the BLM determined fracking was appropriate. Bagley said 90 percent of the wells in Colorado will be fracked and that there has not been any water contamination in Colorado from fracking. The fluids used in fracking are listed on frackfocus.org. The chemicals are listed but not the quantity of each.
Trustee Christie Young commented that fracking in Pennsylvania and elsewhere has not been safe. "What's the rush?" she asked since the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study into fracking.
Sharrow replied the BLM is mandated to offer parcels if nominated for sale.
Steven Hall noted that fracking is a legal process. Young replied, "I think asking the public to accept fracking as a proper way of exploration without more proof that it is safe is also putting us in a very precarious position."
At one point Young said, "I'm a firm believer that we do way, way too many things because we can and not because we should ... I think this process smells." It's a case of "follow the money," she said. She doesn't believe gas development is in the best interests for the Town of Crawford.
Trustee Wanda Gofforth said fracking problems are limited and asked if there would be inspections at each step. Bagley answered yes. A performance record is kept on each operator and there are third party tests. Fracking fluids will be recycled.
Bagley said how deep they drill to frack depends on the formation they are going through. In North Dakota they drill 10,000 feet before they do their horizontal drilling. The aquifer there is at 1,700 feet. There is 8,300 feet of rock cap over the formation.
Bruce Bair, Crawford public works director, said he was concerned that their domestic water line was close to portions of parcel 6612 and would like to see those parts of the parcel eliminated.
Bair asked how far an operator can bore horizontally from a well site and if they have to stay within the lease. The longest horizontal bore Bagley was aware of was 13,000 feet. "It's all physics. It depends how deep the formation is they are going to and how far they can get drilled out because it all deals with the weight of the pipe."
Young asked, "Can it go beyond the boundaries of a parcel?"
Bagley answered, "When a well is proposed [the operator] goes to the state and [BLM] works on this issue too. They set up a drilling unit . . . So your answer, can they go outside the lease? Yes. But they need to have a valid lease to go into. So if it's private, they need to have a private lease agreement with the mineral owner before they can go outside our federal lease."
"So, if you set up a pad on parcel 6612 at the very edge of it, and you drill horizontally could you go outside 6612 and into our water source?" Young asked.
"You have to realize they are going to drill vertically before they go horizontal," Bagley said. "It will be well below your water line, your water source." When asked about contaminating the aquifer, he replied, "If you have 4,000 to 6,000 feet of rock above your formation until your last water aquifer the communication is such it won't go up." If the fluids had a way to get to the surface, they would have by now. That's why, he said, they must be fracked to release the gas from where it is trapped. Fracking is horizontal not vertical.
The 1989 Resource Management Plan allows for only 10 wells to be drilled a year in the Uncompahgre Field Office area. The RMP will not include a master leasing plan but contains similar analysis used in one.
At the Hotchkiss work session, Mayor Wendell Koontz asked the majority of questions. Sharrow said the RMP had been amended 15 to 16 times. In 2010, it was amended due to a new travel management plan. The RMP revision was started two to three years ago, Sharrow said. The RMP will be used for any projects in the North Fork Valley until a new one is published in 2015.
The BLM can move an operator's well site 200 feet. They can also limit drilling to a smaller part of the lease if BLM feels justified.
The Town of Hotchkiss, like Paonia and Crawford, has a Source Water Protection Plan. The BLM has not decided if acreage listed in the EA as possibly interfering with the town's water source will be deferred from the sale. The final decision for the sale has not been made.
Bagley said the BLM is trying to reduce the footprint for drilling sites. From one pad there can be multiple wells, but each well requires a separate analysis. Hall added that there will be state, county and other local permits in addition to the BLM federal process.
Mayor Koontz asked about the town's scenic byway stipulation in their comment letter. How did BLM decide which scenic byway stipulation was included?
"We looked at that as we were going through the EA. What we had received previously was that the really scenic portion of the scenic byway was right near Paonia Reservoir and above. So that's why we took out those parcels closest to that," Sharrow said.
Later Mayor Koontz said that the town had asked for parcels 6625 and 6608 to have the scenic byway stipulation added. Would it be an issue to have that stipulation added?
Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia have been designated as part of the West Elk Scenic Byway Loop.
Sharrow said that while BLM would look at the issue, she noted that there are industrial type things in the towns. "Are we being arbitrary and capricious to say no to oil and gas and there can be a lot of other things that can happen along the byway? We'll definitely take your comment into consideration."
Contacted on Jan. 28, John Hoffman, the chair for the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway Steering Committee said, "We consider that whole loop a scenic byway and we've endorsed the industrialization of the coal portion of that in Bowie, Somerset and those areas by putting out interpretive panels explaining the history of the coal in the valley and the current condition. So, in a sense we've considered that a scenic part of the byway — the industrial uses also."
He is sure that Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia would not lose their scenic byway designation due to gas drilling. "They've already drilled several wells along the byway in some of the very most scenic spots," Hoffman said. The byway committee submitted comments during the scoping period to BLM. They requested that for the scenic byway, the industrial activity should be kept out of the viewshed of those driving by. That could be accomplished with berming or by the activity being placed on a hillside above where people are driving.
Some 300 people attended the three town council meetings and work sessions with the BLM. While all mayors stressed decorum was to be observed and the public silent, there were times when someone would shout out a comment. Such was the case at the conclusion of the Hotchkiss meeting. A woman pointed at the trustees and said, "Shame on you for not representing the people in this room who are opposed to this sale."
Koontz said he had asked repeatedly through the town's website for comments and no one spoke up.
In Crawford, the crowd applauded most of Christie Young's questions and comments.
In Paonia at the meeting's conclusion, several started the chant seen on many car bumpers, "Don't Frack the Fork!"
To view the complete Paonia meeting go to www.youtube.com/cowordsandpictures.blog comments powered by Disqus