The Crestone Eagle, February 2008:

Draft EA released on Wildlife Refuge drilling
Comment period ends March 2, 2008

by Ceal Smith

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) released its draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on gas and oil drilling in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 18. According to the report, displacement of wintering antelope and elk herds, upgrade or construction of almost 7 miles of access roads including a major crossing over endangered Rio Grande sucker habitat, placement of well sites in or near sensitive wetlands and waterways, and risking irreparable damage to the Closed Basin aquifer are acceptable losses to the surface estate of the Refuge in order to allow Lexam’s high-risk, wildcat exploration scheme to go forward.

The draft EA was prepared for USFWS by ENSR, an environmental consulting firm in Ft. Collins. Lexam’s most recent financial report of $1.5 million loss, notes “major expenditures included costs associated with an Environmental Assessment being prepared in conjunction with the planned drilling at [the] Baca Project in Colorado”.

The draft EA lays out USFWS’s “Proposed Action Alternative” to permit Lexam’s drilling plan as originally proposed. Two additional alternatives, “No Federal Involvement ” and “No Mineral Exploration”, are considered in less detail. Several important protection alternatives were rejected by USFWS, including suspension of Lexam’s drilling proposal until completion of a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, directional drilling, permitting only one well, and denying Lexam access to the Refuge.

Of the more than 48,000 letters submitted by citizens during the 30-day EA scoping period last fall conveying a multitude of concerns, 10 issues were identified in the draft EA. These are soils, air quality, water resources, vegetation and habitats, wildlife and fisheries, cultural resources, Native American traditional values, recreation, socioeconomics, and aesthetics.

The EA proposes 34 general protective measures that USFWS says are intended to minimize the potential impacts of the drilling. These include on-site monitors, decontamination of vehicles to minimize introducing non-native species, baseline water quality studies, use of a closed-loop system, no pits, ponds and/or open tanks, a Lexam gate guard, restricting activity to August 1-April 30, a .25-mile buffer zone around Rio Grande sucker habitat, dust control, $1 million liability insurance, and strict adherence to Refuge access conditions. These measures include the 18 conditions applied to Lexam’s drilling permits No. 5 and No. 6 approved by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in March 2007.

One welcomed surprise is that USFWS will begin its Comprehensive Conservation Planning (CCP) process this year instead of 2011 as previously scheduled. While this is good news, suspending the drilling until completion of a CCP is one of the alternatives eliminated from consideration in the EA. USFWS considers delaying the drilling until completion of the CCP to be “an unreasonable constraint on Lexam’s rights to develop its mineral estate.” The conclusion of the report is that roads and drill pads will affect only 14 acres, while the CCP will apply to the entire refuge which is 92,500-acres. USFWS concludes that the “impact of this planned drilling program on surface resources of the Refuge can be thoroughly assessed and evaluated prior to the completion of the CCP”.

Scientifically supported evidence of the effectiveness of the proposed measures and standards or USFWS conclusions of no significant impact on most of the issues considered is not evident in the report. Despite widespread concern about the location of the test wells in or very near sensitive wetland and riparian areas, there is no consideration of alternative well sites. The draft EA also fails to address the potential impact of drilling 14,000’ through the Closed Basin aquifer system, one of the largest and most pristine aquifers in the Country and the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley’s wildlife, agriculture and communities.

Although many see it as an endorsement of Lexam’s drilling proposal, the draft EA is not a decision document. Following a 45-day public comment period (ending March 2, 2008), the USFWS Regional Director will make either a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or a Decision to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

To get a copy of EA
The USFWS draft EA document is available at: http://www.fws.gov/Alamosa/BacaNWR.html or contact the USFWS office in Alamosa at: (719) 589-4021 to request a copy. Written comments or questions should be directed to: Michael Blenden, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 9383 El Rancho Lane, Alamosa, CO 81101, or email at Baca_EA@fws.gov.

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