The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to offer eight parcels near southwest Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park in a November oil and natural gas lease sale, a move that has sparked concerns from local government leaders who fear drilling could degrade air quality and other natural resources in the region.
The eight parcels just east of the national park were among 12 covering about 12,000 acres that BLM's Tres Rios Field Office deferred from a February lease sale. The agency pulled the parcels after the National Park Service, park advocates and conservation groups objected on the grounds that oil and gas drilling could negatively affect air quality and natural resources at the park.
BLM has not officially announced what parcels will be included in the Nov. 14 lease sale. But the agency plans to include the 12 deferred parcels, including the eight near the park, in a formal Aug. 15 lease sale notice 90 days prior to the sale, said Vanessa Lacayo, a BLM spokeswoman in Denver.
The lease sale notice will kick off a 30-day protest period, during which time any of the parcels offered for lease can be challenged. BLM, Lacayo said, "has the discretion up until the morning of the sale" to remove any of the lease parcels.
But Lacayo said BLM officials feel confident about the eight parcels near Mesa Verde after meeting at least twice since February with the National Park Service. She said they believe the two agencies have resolved most of the Park Service's concerns over air quality and natural resource impacts, as well as potential noise and aesthetic impacts to the park.
"We have been able to work with them to resolve some of the concerns they, as well as the public, had about the project," she said. She did not elaborate on what changes BLM has made to appease the Park Service.
She also defended the decision to offer the eight parcels near Mesa Verde, noting that 30 percent of the federal minerals near the entrance to the park unit have already been leased. None of the leases, however, is in the production phase, she said.
"The BLM determined that the Nov. 14 lease sale would be a good opportunity to put the 12 parcels back up for lease," she said.
But Park Service officials indicated yesterday they are not ready to say that allowing drilling near the park is a good idea.
"We are still trying to figure out what's changed with the BLM. We're not exactly sure at this point," said James Doyle, chief of communications and legislative affairs for the NPS Intermountain Region office in Denver.
Doyle confirmed that John Wessels, director of the Intermountain Region, has been working with BLM Colorado State Director Helen Hankins on the issue. "We're still trying to access what the changes are that are being made" to the lease proposal and whether they are enough to alleviate the Park Service's concerns, he said.
But BLM's decision to offer the deferred parcels for lease prompted the La Plata County Commission this week to send a two-page letter to Hankins urging her not to include the parcels in the scheduled lease sale.
The commission wrote that it wants BLM to first honor a request to develop a master leasing plan (MLP) in the area. MLPs are a planning tool designed to guide oil and gas development away from the most environmentally sensitive landscapes, and they were a key component of sweeping federal onshore leasing reforms announced in 2010 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"We believe the proposed leasing will impact the preparation of Master Leasing Plans in and around La Plata County," they wrote. "However, by making the decision to lease now, the BLM appears to be shutting the door on an MLP and a smart approach to protect the treasures that are so important to our local community and economy."
Lacayo said BLM is still reviewing requests to conduct three MLPs in the area.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said in an interview that the commission is not against drilling, but it wants BLM to develop an MLP to ensure that impacts to natural resources and private property owners are limited.
Lachelt noted that BLM is updating a more-than-20-year-old resource management plan (RMP) for the San Juan Basin area and that "it feels like they've got the cart before the horse when putting these parcels back on before revising the plan."
"I've been asked recently that if BLM conducts an MLP and still decides to lease the parcels, will you be OK with that, and my answer is yes," she said. "At least we'd know that they've gone through a thorough review process and, yes, we would live with that."
Thus, the commissioners voted 2-1 this week to send the letter to Hankins urging her "to not proceed with further leasing until the agency makes a public commitment to utilizing, or includes in its forthcoming Resource Management Plan, an MLP for this field development."
The proposal to drill near Mesa Verde National Park has been hotly contested by national park advocates and conservation groups since BLM offered the eight parcels for inclusion in the February lease sale.
Among those that protested against leasing the parcels was the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which wrote a letter in February to Salazar complaining that development of the eight parcels "could further impair the already degraded air quality at Mesa Verde, harm important scenic values within the surrounding landscape and negatively affect the local economy, which depends greatly on the national park's protected status."
The parcels were eventually deferred about a week before the sale, which still ranked among the largest in terms of size in the state's recent history. Despite the deferrals and other sensitive parcels, the lease sale was a huge success, resulting in the sale of 107 parcels covering 60,000 acres for $2.1 million, including rentals and fees (EnergyWire, Feb. 15).
Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council in Durango, Colo., said the economic potential of developing the leases is more than enough reason to offer the parcels for sale.
For starters, there are more than 3,300 active coalbed methane and conventional natural gas wells in the county, and the top 10 property tax payers there are natural gas companies, Zeller said.
What makes the area near the Mesa Verde National Park so enticing is that the wildcat wells that would be drilled there could tap into petroleum reserves in the so-called Red Mesa field, diversifying the natural-gas-rich region's economy, she said.
"There's no doubt in my mind this will be a very good thing for the community if they do find the [petroleum] product," she said. "The economic benefits or income that would circulate in this community could be large."
Zeller also dismissed the notion that an MLP is needed or that federal regulators should wait for the revised RMP to be completed before offering parcels for lease. She said the council's member companies have been told by BLM that any leases or permits will include stipulations that reflect what the agency knows is going to be in the revised RMP.
"No matter what, the conditions of approval for a permit will be high and rigorous," she said.
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