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Colorado Grassland Open For More Drilling, But Operators Will Have Limits

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Grace Hood
/
KUNC

A proposed federal plan will open up more of Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado for oil and gas drilling. But operators would have limitations on how they extract the resources.

The draft plan [.pdf] issued by the U.S. Forest Service protects a lot of the grassland's surface. It will not allow any new surface occupancy. In practice, that means existing operators in the Grassland could use already established well pads and surface rights to remove oil and natural gas, but can't create any new ones. Operators could also potentially use private lots that dot the Grassland to establish well pads.

“The reason this is our preferred alternative is because it allows for the maximum extraction while providing the most protection for our surface resources,” said U.S. Forest Service Spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman. “So you will still see development on the landscape. But more of that would then take place on private land.”

Thus far, drilling has already dotted the Grassland with 62 oil and gas wells on its surface. The Forest Service's 1997 mineral extraction plan allowed oil and gas companies to build well pads on the surface with some restrictions. Since that time, as the use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods became much more widespread, interest in mineral extraction has increased.

"The reason this is our preferred alternative is because it allows for the maximum extraction while providing the most protection for our surface resources."

The plan only applies to [.pdf] areas of the Grassland that are not currently leased—an estimated 100,000 acres.

Thus far, the U.S. Forest Service has received 2,500 comments on the plan. The environmental impact statement responds to 44 types of comments on the plan. Comments range from concerns about endangered species to concerns about how aquifers would be impacted by fracking.

It’s this later concern that Cloudman said is better directed toward another federal agency. The Forest Service only deals with what happens above ground on their lands.

“The Bureau Land Management [BLM] is who is going to administering, monitoring and making decisions about things that happen below the surface. So the BLM and other entities will manage whether fracking is occurring. For us, we’re just looking at that surface impact,” she said.

Under federal guidelines, the U.S. Forest Service will only accept objections from those who have previously submitted complaints with the plan. They have 45 days to submit written comments.

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