Possible Precedent-setting Decision
NORTH FORK VALLEY – The U.S. Forest Service Paonia Ranger District announced on June 14 that it is withdrawing its decision to approve an oil and gas drilling permit in the Gunnison National Forest, according to a release by Citizens for a Healthy Community and the Western Environmental Law Center.
WELC had submitted an administrative appeal challenging the drilling approval because the USFS failed to complete the legally mandated site-specific environmental analysis of drilling impacts, and the federal agency agreed.
The permit was requested by SG Interests LLC, of Houston, Texas, for a three-acre well pad (five wells plus roads and pipelines) about 600 feet from Little Henderson Creek, off County Road 265 north of Paonia Reservoir.
The USFS originally approved the drilling request through a so-called categorical exclusion, claiming that the site-specific environmental analysis had already been completed for the area at large. However, closer examination of the agency’s decision revealed that no such analysis had ever been performed, and that the project USFS was basing its decision upon was itself approved through a categorical exclusion – meaning development of the SG Interests site would have occurred with no site-specific study whatsoever on impacts the proposed drilling might have on wildlife habitat and water resources at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
“Public lands managers need to take a hard look at the negative impacts of drilling our forests,” said Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “We appreciate that the Forest Service is not moving forward with this proposal under a process that fails to evaluate environmental impacts.”
“Although this proposal didn’t involve a huge number of acres, it would have set a bad precedent for the manner in which federal agencies manage and approve oil and gas development on our public lands,” said WELC attorney, Kyle Tisdel. “Failing to provide any site-specific analysis of an oil and gas development is legally indefensible, and the Forest Service correctly recognized this failure in withdrawing its approval.”
“This might sound like a relatively minor win,” Ramey told The Watch. “But it's important because it sets precedent that the agency cannot approve a relatively small drilling project (five wells) by ‘tiering’ – that is, citing another previously approved, small project in the area without conducting a site specific analysis of impacts.
“This is also important,” Ramey said, “because the proposed well pad location is in critical elk winter habitat. There is a fairly limited amount of critical elk winter habitat in the area, and if that is all developed there isn't any other comparable habitat nearby for them to go to. Hunting and fishing are hugely important to the economy here. Hunting and fishing generated $81 million in economic benefits and supported more than 900 jobs in Delta and Gunnison counties as of 2007, the most recent data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. It’s probably more now. This is a reliable economic boost for the area, and allowing drilling to continue without considering how that's going to impact the big game herds and thus the hunting economy violates public lands managers' mandate under the law.”