Environmental Assesment for Baca Wildlife Refuge released; US Fish & Wildlife gives ok to exploratory oil & gas drilling

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by Matie Belle Lakish

A new Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) of Lexam Explorations’ proposal to drill two exploratory wells to look for natural gas on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge was released by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on January 7, 2011. According to the Draft EA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed allowing two exploratory wells to be drilled sequentially on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge to search for oil or gas. The draft imposed 41 conditions that must be met, but concluded that the wells would not significantly affect or unreasonably degrade the 78,670-acre refuge. A final Record of Decision on the Environmental Assessment (EA), or a decision to go for a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement, must be pursued before drilling can actually begin.

The deadline for comments on this Draft EA is Monday, February 7. A Public Hearing on the draft was held by US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, January 26, at Colorado College.   The public asked questions regarding a number of environmental concerns, especially possible impacts to water and wildlife and questioned if drilling operations would be in compliance with

county noise regulations.  Citizens questioned the possibilty of having the mineral rights purchased, but USF&WL representatives said the the government did not have the money to do so at this time.  It was suggested that possibly private parties could do so.  USF&WL representatives answered questions regarding the new EA and encouraged the public to make “substantive” comments as part of the process, rather than opinions. A follow-up meeting to prepare public comments, called by San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), took place on Friday, January 28.

Due to the settlement agreement reached by SLVEC, WPC (Water Protection Coalition), US Fish and Wildlife and Lexam, stemming from a lawsuit filed in 2007, the timeframe for this next round of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) public process has been extremely short, and a final EA must be completed by US Fish and Wildlife by April 1, unless a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is decided upon. That lawsuit challenged the adequacy of the original EA, which did not include an analysis of an option for buying out the mineral rights. The new EA does address that option. The following is a portion of FWS’s announcement.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announces the availability of a draft environmental assessment of proposed exploration of potential oil and gas resources underlying the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.  This document is available for public review and comments will be accepted until February 7, 2011.

“The document describes a project proposed by Lexam Explorations (U.S.A.) Inc. to conduct initial exploration of mineral interests under Baca National Wildlife Refuge.  The environmental assessment analyzes alternatives that seek to protect Refuge resources while honoring a mineral owner’s legally vested right to access and explore.”

The September 2010 settlement agreement sought to rectify the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s compliance with NEPA.  NEPA is a United States environmental law passed in 1969 that requires all Federal governmental agencies to include public comment when they consider the environmental impacts of any proposed federal action and analyze reasonable alternatives to those actions.

According to the FWS announcement, “The end product of this analysis will be either an Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact or, if the federal action is determined to have a significant effect on the environment, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be conducted.

“In 2006 Lexam proposed drilling two exploratory wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge to assess the potential for marketable quantities of natural gas or oil.  The current operating plan provided by Lexam for these exploration activities and the draft environmental assessment can be viewed at http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/bacaNWR.html.”

“Comments can be sent via mail to David Lucas, Chief, Division of Refuge Planning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Refuge Planning, P.O. Box 25484, Denver, CO 80225- 0486 or via email to: BacaDraftEAComments@fws.gov and must be received no later than February 7, 2011.

“The draft environmental assessment and the Lexam operating plan can be viewed or downloaded via the Refuge’s website at http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/bacaNWR.html or obtained by contacting Mike Blenden, Project leader, at (719) 589-4021.”

Christine Canaly, Director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, a local environmental organization, asks that citizens, “Request that an Environmental Impact Statement be prepared to fairly present the benefits of protecting the unique habitat and community of the San Luis Valley against the negative impacts caused by high risk wildcat drilling. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has just begun analysis on its Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan for the Baca Refuge. They estimate this Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) analysis will take approximately 2-3 years. Why not wait until this baseline analysis is complete before making a determination on the Lexam drilling proposal, when they will have a better understanding of what the baseline impacts might be?”

Canaly continues, “Buying out and retiring the mineral rights presents significant benefits to the San Luis Valley, the nation, and migratory birds, like the 18,000-20,000 population of Greater Sandhill Cranes that people from throughout the U.S. flock to see each fall and spring. And let’s also not forget about the site specific Burrowing Owl, which has also been documented nesting in several locations in close proximity to the proposed drilling area.”

Regarding the drilling process, she says, “It is unreasonable to drill a 14,000 foot deep hole through various aquifers that form the heart of the San Luis Valley, which contains the headwaters of the Rio Grande.  If the drilling fracture hemorrhages, there is little chance of preventing a catastrophic failure.  A spill into this unique groundwater system could travel as fast as a quarter mile in a single day, with permanent consequences for groundwater. Instead of pollution, significant benefits would be gained by avoiding a spill.

“This drilling project will have a nearly 3-mile depth with extraordinary pressures anticipated, but there is no analysis of the consequences for the Valley should a blowout occur with equipment failures. Hard lessons from the Gulf spill are not recognized. The Department of Interior has not required Lexam to demonstrate it is technically and financially prepared to handle the significant risks posed by deep drilling into a fragile ecosystem.”

Regarding the local community, Canaly says, “Drilling would have negative impacts on businesses and activities involving the unique agriculture, wildlife, and recreation, as well as citizens’ dedication to local sustainability in the San Luis Valley. Denying drilling through permanent mineral acquisition would have long term benefits of protecting the unique character of this magnificent area.”

The deadline for Public Comments is Monday, February 7, and these can be emailed to the above address. For more information, Canaly recommends the SLVEC website, www.slvec.org.

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