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Appeal filed in HD drilling decision

An appeal was filed this past Tuesday by a coalition of citizen’s groups and environmental organizations, contesting a district court ruling in May that allowed gas drilling in the HD mountains and the San Juan National Forest. Part of the area involved in the ruling is in the western section of Archuleta County.

On May 3, U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch upheld an April 2007 Record of Decision (ROD) by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management allowing for expanded coal-methane drilling in the HD Mountains.

Filed by Earthjustice, representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Wild and The Wilderness Society, as well as landowners, farmers, hunters, and other users of the HD Mountains, the appeal alleges that the USFS and BLM adopted the drilling plan despite numerous inconsistencies to its own forest conservation plans. Furthermore, the appeal states that the plan failed to properly assess environmental impacts of drilling on wildlife and air quality, violating National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

The appeal represents the newest salvo in an ongoing battle over the push to exploit massive shale deposits of natural gas that underlie large areas of the United States.

Long touted as a cleaner alternative to crude oil products, natural gas produces a fraction of the harmful emissions associated with burning coal, diesel and gasoline. Furthermore, proponents of natural gas drilling contend that the fuel is a means to energy independence and a “transitional fuel” in the move towards renewable energy resources, i.e., nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal and hydrogen.

However, while natural gas has earned a reputation as a clean-energy alternative, the extraction processes used in drilling have been accused of being anything but clean — a primary complaint referred to in Tuesday’s appeal.

Extracting natural gas from shale involves a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which between 2 and 7 million gallons of water, infused with sand and numerous chemicals, are injected at extremely high pressures into wells. The combination of water, sand, chemicals and high pressures fracture the shale deposit, freeing up the contained natural gas, which is then fed into storage tanks.

Detractors say that fracking is responsible for numerous incidents of air and water pollution throughout the United States and that the process has not been adequately regulated. In fact, the Bush administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, among other federal environmental protection provisions and restrictions.

Critics have claimed that exemption — known as the “Halliburton loophole” — has enabled energy companies to pump toxins, such as benzene, glycol ether, toluene, and numerous other chemicals (many cancer-causing), into the ground, jeopardizing groundwater and associated water tables.

Very small quantities of benzene (a known carcinogen) are capable of contaminating millions of gallons of water.

In 2004, groundwater contamination in Garfield County, Colo., led to a situation where residents could light portions of the creek on fire. Since then, reports that numerous Colorado residents with wells near natural gas drilling have been able to ignite water flowing through their taps have been substantiated.

Gas industry officials have largely denied that fracking is responsible for flammable tap water, despite providing freshwater cisterns for owners of alleged poisoned wells.

Compounding the problem, wastewater (with the contained chemicals) from fracking is stored in open pits, some lined with plastic, others unlined, and can potentially leak into the ground, with those chemicals eventually making their way into to the water table.

Again, industry officials deny that the wastewater storage has created significant impact on groundwater or associated watersheds.

Tuesday’s appeal (filed in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals) states that the USFS and BLM plan would be potentially harmful to the HD Mountain watershed, an essential water source for the San Juan Basin. The appeal also indicated that several other low-elevation watersheds in the area would be at risk.

Air quality, also addressed in the appeal, is another issue that Earthjustice claims was ignored by the USFS and BLM in the drilling plan.

During fracking, compression stations, storage units and pipelines require venting in order to rarify natural gas products and handle pressure differentials. Although industry officials contend that natural gas drilling is a relatively clean process as far as air quality, several independent studies contradict that claim.

One such study, conducted last year in Dish (formerly Clark), Texas, showed that benzene was present at levels as much as 55 times higher than allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The area studied included residential neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers, all within close proximity of wells, pipelines and storage tanks.

The same study indicated the presence of other chemicals in the air exceeding legal limits (some as much as 84 times levels deemed safe) including neurotoxicants xylene and carbon disulfide, naphthalene (a blood poison) and pyridines (potential carcinogens).

Prior to the Dish study, TCEQ responded to complaints of odors in the town by driving around for two hours with a gas detection unit, later reporting that investigators found “no leaks that would be detectable to the human nose.”

An EPA study, mandated last year by congress to verify findings from the numerous studies, is not due to report its results until mid-year 2012.

According to Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, “We’ve been working on drilling in the HDs for 17 years.”

Stating that the original plan, launched by Amoco (before becoming BP), called for over 200 wells in the HD mountains, but that plan was later scaled back to 28 wells. With a few wells already drilled in the HD mountains, Lachelt said that the plan called for expanding drilling into roadless areas.

“The HD Mountains are one of the last remaining low elevation roadless areas in Colorado,” Lachelt said. “It really is a critical wildlife habitat that needs work to protect.”

Industry plans, as approved by the USFS and BLM, would cut at least 11 miles of new roads through the currently roadless mountains, with roads and well pads effectively obliterating stands of unlogged, old-growth ponderosa pine forests, many over 300 years old.

Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild said, “We’re not opposed to all drilling, we’re just concerned that the plan, as proposed by the Forest Service, really threatens wildlife, air quality, water quality and is inconsistent with the local Forest Service plan.”

However, Jim Fitzgerald, a property owner in the HD mountains (and co-plaintiff in the appeal) stated concerns with drilling in the area, pointing to problems with wells already drilled in La Plata County.

“You’ve got poisoned water, land, houses blown up, houses torn down board-by-board.”

Fitzgerald was referring to numerous instances of spontaneous coal seam fires along the Fruitland Outcrop (the eastern portion of the HD mountains), as well as forced evacuation of homes and condemnation of wells due to contamination associated with fracking.

Opposition to drilling in the HD mountains is a long-standing issue that has gained attention over the last decade. When the USFS drafted its plan for drilling in the HD mountains in 2004, the agency received more than 70,000 objections to the plan.

Anne Bond, Public Affairs Specialist for the USFS and BLM said that defendants in the appeal, “Have no comment in the case because of pending litigation.”

As of press time, Department of Justice attorneys had not responded to requests for comment.

With the appeal having just been filed, a court date has not yet been set for the matter. Furthermore, while the EPA has set hearings on the effects of fracking for the Summer of 2011, reports will not be final until the following year. Finally, in light of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it remains to be seen if the federal government will continue to maintain relaxed regulations on the natural gas industry.

At the local level, the future of natural gas drilling appears to be in the hands of the feds.

jim@pagosasun.com