Citizen and environmental groups are calling for transparency and a new environmental impact statement for prospective shale oil and gas development on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.
Last month, the tribe announced plans to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement for an existing EIS on natural resource extraction on the northern edge of the San Juan Basin.
But because previous studies do not specifically address horizontally drilled hydraulic fracturing, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians say a standalone EIS is warranted.
“We’re talking about extraction techniques that are much more energy-intensive, produce greater emissions and pose greater risks to the region’s geology and hydrology,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
The Paradox, Mancos and Lewis shale would be fracked for natural gas. The Niobrara shale, which is a layer within the Mancos shale in this region, would be drilled for oil, increasing the number of La Plata County wells by as much as 33 percent.
The proposed action would allow for as many as 1,534 wells, 353 well pads, fluid management facilities, 83 miles of new roads and 600 miles of pipeline to be developed over 20 years.
Tribe officials presented the idea as a development strictly on tribal lands. But because the project area is a checkerboard of tribal, private and federal ownership – some of it split estate – the line between tribe and public interest is ambiguous.
In a 93-page document, the four groups call for additional public meetings throughout the affected region and a development time line as well as surface water, groundwater and air analyses.
Earlier this month, La Plata County commissioners submitted their own letter of concern to the Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios Field Office about the impacts to roads, air and water quality, and private landowners.
Commissioners said they not only want open communication throughout the process, but to update a memorandum of understanding with the tribe about the development of non-tribal mineral rights on reservation lands. Technology, they said, has outgrown the 2004 memorandum.
“It’s definitely time to sit down with the tribe and make sure the MOU meets the tribe’s and county’s needs,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.
The period for public comments on the supplemental EIS ended this month, and the drafting process, which could take a year or more, has begun.
New terrainThe coalbed methane boom has been far-reaching in the Four Corners, and in La Plata County alone, more than 3,000 wells are considered active or producing. But scoping shale plays presents a new set of questions for the tribe and county.
Last month, an investigation by Standford scientists found that fracking near Pavillion, Wyoming, polluted nearby aquifers, which debunked a report from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The Pavillion wells were not properly cemented to prevent pollutants from entering the water system, but those are the risks at stake with fracking on the reservation, Nichols said.
Shale drilling has been scant in La Plata County. Swift Energy, a Houston-based private oil and gas company, attempted it in southeastern La Plata County in 2013. Red Willow, the tribe’s production company, attempted it in 2012. All wells were deemed unproductive, plugged and abandoned, but the tribe’s new exploration plans are founded on the idea that there are valuable subsurface resources yet untapped.
Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, said a proposal of this magnitude is a “game-changer,” and planning for horizontal drilling is a different process from vertical drilling.
“It’s in proximity to important waterways, and if they’re proposing over a thousand wells at a time when we’re recognizing the impacts of methane, who is going to analyze this?” he said.
The BLM directed inquiries to Karen Spray, exploration and production manager for the Southern Ute Growth Fund, who said the tribe intends to follow the process as required under the National Environmental Protection Act. She said the comments will be taken into consideration as the drafting process begins.
“The general feeling is that we don’t have fluid; we’re just looking at gas. We’re overestimating with the document so we don’t have to go back and address oil,” Spray said. “Technology has changed so we can drain greater reserves with less wells. We’re crafting our assessment for the worst-case scenario.”
Besides Red Willow endeavors, private companies lease land on the reservation through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Spray said the prospective shale development is a defensive move on the tribe’s part to protect its resources and keep private companies from extracting subsurface minerals beneath tribal lands.
“We saw this happen with coalbed methane,” Spray said.
The environmental groups’ objections are not unlike the pending lawsuit they brought against the BLM last year over fracking in the Gallup sandstone oil area, arguing that the federal agency failed to thoroughly vet the impacts. They’re waiting on a ruling on their appeal for an injunction that would delay development permits.
“The BLM told us what they were doing was exploratory, but they drilled over 300 wells,” Eisenfeld said. “This parallels that project a bit. They’re talking about 1,500 (wells), so it’s up to these agencies to explain how this will happen in an orderly fashion.”