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More Piceance Natural Gas, Oil Development Eyed in BLM's Proposal

A proposal that could allow more natural gas and oil development across 1.7 million acres of Colorado's Piceance Basin for the next 20 years was unveiled Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency said the proposal could yield more than 7.5 Tcf of natural gas over the period.

According to BLM's White River Field Office, the proposed amendment to the 1997 resource management plan (RMP) analyzed the impacts associated with developing up to 15,040 gas and wells on federal lands that are drilled on 1,100 well pads over the next two decades. To reach that level of development, an average of 750 wells would need to be drilled each year for 20 years. Currently the field office averages less than 200 wells permitted each year.

The proposalto the White River Field Office RMP outlines several "progressive mitigation measures" to reduce the impact from increased production in Rio Blanco County, southern Moffat County and a section of northern Garfield County. The proposal would amend the 1997 RMP, the overarching land-use plan that guides management within the field office.

"We have world-class oil and gas resources under world-class wildlife habitat, and this plan provides unique solutions to manage both of those resources," said BLM's Kent Walter, manager of the White River Field Office.

A lot has changed since the 1997 RMP was issued, BLM noted. Specifically, the proposed amendment provides guidance regarding "an anticipated increase in oil and gas development, a change to multi-well pads, and development focus in the Piceance Basin." In addition, it details measures to mitigate associated impacts, including the addition of state-of-the-art emission controls. If approved, an incentive-based approach would offer ways to allow year-round drilling, while minimizing surface disturbances and disruption to wildlife.

Most of the federal minerals administered by the White River office already are leased for oil and gas development. The amendment would not authorize energy development nor a specific number of wells, both of which would be done through site-specific planning.

RMPs are typically in place for two decades, but they are not static documents, BLM said. During their 20-year span, BLM may amend the plans as needed to address specific areas, including energy development. A plan amendment looks at a "single, specific aspect or issue" in a field office RMP. The scope of an amendment is narrow does not revisit all of the decisions in the 1997 RMP.

"With today's technology, oil and gas operators are drilling multiple wells on each well pad through directional drilling, which helps concentrate development in specific areas, leaving larger blocks of habitat undisturbed," Walter said. "Operators who work with us to keep disturbance below specified thresholds will be eligible for exceptions to limitations on the time of year drilling is allowed."

Covered within the amendment is the 422,600-acre Dinosaur Trail Master Leasing Plan, which identifies a strategic plan for leasing and development in the northwestern corner of the White River field office. A phased-leasing approach and specific stipulations also are provided to minimize impacts to sensitive resources, including Dinosaur National Monument.

BLM described the proposal as a "blend of four alternatives" analyzed in the draft environmental impact statement issued in 2012 (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27, 2012). The proposal "was largely influenced by close coordination with a number of state and local cooperators along with the more than 19,000 public comments received on the draft." Those comments led officials to analyze the potential impacts associated with developing more than 15,000 wells that could be drilled on 1,100 well pads over the next 20 years.

"That level of development could yield more than 7.5 Tcf of natural gas -- enough to heat 7.5 million homes for 15 years -- and lead to a net increase of more than 10,000 jobs in northwestern Colorado," BLM said.

The amendment, published on Friday in the Federal Register, also identifies 137,650 acres that could be managed for wilderness characteristics, in addition to the 82,800 acres already designated as wilderness study areas. Publication of the amendment launched a 30-day public protest period scheduled to end April 27, and a 60-day consistency review by the office of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. State governors are entitled to a separate consistency review of BLM land use plans, revisions and amendments.

Proposed decisions may change based on the results of the public protest period and Hickenlooper's consistency review. A final record of decision is anticipated later this year.

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