The White River National Forest is working toward the final stages of updating its oil and gas plan. The document sets out rules for the energy industry, like where and when they can operate on the Forest. And, it could impact what happens in the Thompson Divide. The agency is updating the old plan partly because oil and gas operations have advanced in the area. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
The last update of an oil and gas plan in the White River National Forest was 21 years ago. The latest version has been in the works for four years now and, it could wrap up in the coming months.
"We’re hoping to get the final EIS done in early May, late summer, at the latest," said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The EIS, or Environmental Impact Statement, is included in the oil and gas plan. Since the plan was introduced to the public in 2010, it has received almost 6000 comments.
It sets rules on where oil and gas operations are allowed in the 2.3 million plus acres of Forest that stretches over parts of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield Counties. The draft document lays out where companies would be required to drill diagonally, so they don’t disturb the land surface. And, drilling may be outlawed during certain times of the year to allow wildlife to roam. Stipulations about how far drilling must be from roads and streams are also included.
And, it’s possible the Forest Service may decide not to allow any future drilling, altogether. That’s what Peter Hart would like to see. He’s a staff attorney for the environmental group, the Wilderness Workshop.
"We think that’s a justified alternative because the White River National Forest is pretty unique. It’s a headwaters forest. It provides most of the water for the upper basin of the Colorado River and ultimately for hundreds of thousands of people downstream. It’s also the most recreated on national forest in the country," Hart said.
If oil and gas leasing is allowed, the Wilderness Workshop would like to see energy development kept out of roadless, or mostly undeveloped areas.
The trade group for Western Slope oil and gas operators isn’t happy with the Forest Service’s plan.
"It’s a pretty devastating document for us," said David Ludlam.
He's with the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The Forest Service lays out four potential alternatives in its draft document. Ludlam says his group’s comments oppose the alternative with more stringent rules for oil and gas.
"When you take the restrictions that are put on the surface of the land, it essentially makes oil and gas development next to impossible, but certainly not cost-effective on the Forest, and that’s a huge disappointment to us."
Under the plan, Ludlam says the rules for oil and gas operators have skyrocketed and more areas are closed to drilling.
But, the plan the trade group likes the least isn’t law, yet. The Forest Service is still making changes and additions as it continues to look over comments.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams says he’s taking the decision seriously.
"The alternatives that we’ve outlined give us a range to make a decision, and I’m gathering that all in."
Once the final document is released, the public will have at least 45 days to weigh in on it before it becomes law.