Plans to auction 16,000 acres of mineral rights underlying private and public land in southwestern La Plata County have caught landowners and elected officials by surprise.
It's not that La Plata County is unfamiliar with natural-gas extraction. It's just that the new proposal lies distant from where anyone anticipated more gas development might occur. The interest to explore Cherry Creek and locations west of the La Plata River highlights the fact that any area underlain by sedimentary formations such as shale are possible sites for exploration and drilling.
The entire county is already leased within the coal-bed methane-producing zone, the area south and east of the Fruitland formation outcrop. Land-owners have seen continually creeping expansion of drilling, first one well every 320 acres, then one every 160 acres, and more recently, industry requests for wells every 80 acres. Drilling in the new zone in the county could result in a well every 40 acres. Consider that every 35-acre tract, such as those in the new Indian Shadow subdivision proposed north of Hesperus, could see a gas well. The idea brings landowners up short.
On Wednesday, apparently under political pressure, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to delay the auction. Residents had several concerns. One was the lack of notification of surface owners. Landowners typically discover the minerals under their homes and ranches are on the auction block by accident. Landowners and county officials were asking that the BLM delay leasing until a public meeting is held to notify landowners of their rights and likely consequences of development.
This problem has caused some lawmakers to offer legislation that requires advance notification by the BLM of affected landowners before leasing federal mineral rights under their property.
Another serious concern is BLM's lack of accurate and current environmental analysis of gas-development impacts. The BLM is relying on a 1990 amendment of a 1985 management plan to assess the consequences of gas development in 2009. The documents are laughable in their cursory consideration of major impacts. For example, the 1990 documents figure that there are no air quality impacts associated with gas development, and presumes incorrectly that methane from coal-bed drilling will never migrate to the surface. That assumption was proved catastrophically incorrect in the early 1990s when homes were evacuated and demolished precisely because of methane seepage.
A federal judge last weekend halted a similar gas and oil lease auction in Utah because of the absence of appropriate environmental analysis. In that case, the judge cited specifically the absence of analysis for air quality and ozone impacts. It's dubious for our local BLM to forge ahead with an identical lease sale with the same lack of consideration of air quality impacts or the many other current consequences of gas development.
This forced, full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consequences, approach to energy development has characterized the Bush administration's emphasis on natural-gas development throughout the West. The present lease sale could be an early gauge on the Obama administration's take on energy development.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.