Farmers, businesses, government officials give BLM an earful over gas lease auction

Bald eagles go there to roost in the winter. The pastoral setting is home to one of the highest concentrations of organic farms in Colorado. It is one of just two designated wine regions in the state.

But that may change soon.

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to offer 21 of the 22 parcels eligible for auction this August in a section of western Colorado where oil and gas companies have set their sights. A few coal mines and dozens of oil and gas wells are already scattered throughout the area, but many residents say additional drilling could be detrimental to the region’s economy, which relies on clean land to grow fruits and vegetables that end up on countless dinner and restaurant tables.

The prospect of the lease sale is already damaging the reputations of farmers and ranchers who say they are encountering customers who falsely believe their food is polluted from oil and gas drilling.

“At our ranch we raise natural grass-fed beef and specialty hays, which are sold to buyers across the country who are interested in quality products that are not tainted with chemicals,” said Landon Deane at Eagle Butte Ranch. “Leasing this land threatens our domestic and irrigation water supplies, and could cause irreversible damage to our reputation and the quality of our products.”

Proposed drilling land next door to Big B's organic apple orchards. (Image: Big B's)
While the Rocky Mountains are not known for their vineyards, the West Elks Winery Association boasts a dozen wineries that generate $1.5 to $2 million in direct sales each year, and an additional estimated $5 million to $10 million in annual indirect sales through dining, lodging and shopping recommendations.

Brent Helleckson of Stone Cottage Cellars is among a delegation of business owners and residents in the North Fork Valley who went to Washington, D.C., last week to ask that the leases be withdrawn.

“Our concern about leasing these lands for industrial development compelled us to travel to D.C. — at the very time we should be preparing our vineyards and getting ready for a busy season — to tell the BLM and the Obama administration face to face that farming, wineries, tourism, and oil and gas drilling, simply do not mix. This lease sale threatens the North Fork economy, my business, and my family,” Helleckson said.

Letters both opposing and supporting more drilling in Delta and Gunnison counties came pouring into the BLM, which closed its public comment period Friday.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife took issue with the BLM’s current plan, with its regional manager Tom Spezze contending “the management decisions for oil and gas regarding leasing crucial deer and elk winter range with seasonal stipulations for seismic and drilling activities do not reflect the best available science.”

In a letter to the BLM (pdf), Spezze points out other problems with the federal agency’s planning.

The BLM, for example, stated in its preferred alternative that it could clean up developed lands 30 years from the time of the initial drilling but Spezze said that is “not consistent with the historical progression of oil and gas development activities in Colorado and other parts of the United States. Our experience is that oil and gas fields in Colorado and other parts of the United States often produce for longer than 30 years — sometimes significantly longer.” Spezze also wrote that the BLM ignored the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recommendations on how to best protect the golden eagle and peregrine falcon nest sites that are in the proposed drilling region, along with bald eagle winter roost sites, fish, and winter habitat and migration corridors for elk and other big game.

BLM field manager Barbara Sharrow in Montrose said she is reviewing the comments.

“We are looking at all the comments that came in but we haven’t read them all yet,” she said.

Sharrow said the BLM hopes to narrow down which parcels will be leased by May 11.

Some local residents support the proposed drilling. Delta County’s board of commissioners initially sided with opponents to oil and gas drilling and recommended a blanket deferral of the parcels but in its latest comment supported the BLM’s preferred alternative with the addition of other conditions and deferrals to guard watersheds from contamination.

Gunnison County, however, remains opposed to the BLM moving forward with the auction.

In a letter to Sharrow (pdf), Gunnison County commissioners said the leases should be deferred until an environmental impact statement and management plan are completed.

The commissioners didn’t sound impressed with the BLM’s due diligence.

“We are aware of several references that can inform a considered and reasoned analysis that should precede any determination to lease that are publicly available and do not appear in the bibliography of this EA. Not the least of them is the list of hazard and wildlife mapping information we referenced in our February 7, 2012 scoping letter, which information ought to be considered in determining whether lease sales are appropriate, in whole or in part. We urge the BLM to review and respond to that considerable information, and to also review [a list of reading materials the Gunnison County commissioners compiled for the BLM].”

Aside from noise and eye pollution, oil and gas drilling — and everything else that comes with it — can contaminate the air, water and ground. The energy industry is booming in Colorado and across the nation thanks to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is a method of breaking up rock to release oil and gas deposits deep underground. U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, D-Colorado, are calling for stronger laws to protect public health and the environment.

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