by Christine Canaly, Director San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) Record of Decision on April 1 regarding the Lexam Explorations, Inc. proposal to drill two 14,000 ft. exploratory oil and gas wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The Decision outlines 43 terms and conditions to be imposed upon Lexam by the Service. Appendix D of the final Environmental Assessment contains a full description of the protective measures. http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/BacaNWR.html

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), who brought the original lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 charging that a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)  be performed before drilling occur on the refuge, is disappointed in the FONSI decision, but not surprised.

SLVEC has been asking for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) since the public process began, sighting a plethora of issues. See slvec.org-Projects-Lexam. The Service has listed the 43 terms and conditions which reveals their acknowledgement regarding the significance of the area.

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge has also just begun an EIS process for its Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, which will determine how the Refuge will be managed over the next 20 years.  SLVEC has argued that a Management Plan be in place before drilling begins.

Running on a parallel track and in a direction that SLVEC and Water Protection Coalition (WPC) present as the long term answer, is the buyout and retirement of the mineral rights beneath the Baca Refuge, which would also include the lands that were acquired by and for the public in the National Park and Preserve Act of 2000.

This buyout and retirement solution was supported by Senior Judge Walker Miller when he surmised in late 2009 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “…did not really consider the possibility of acquiring Lexam’s mineral rights as an alternative….” As it currently stands, acquisition is not a priority for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This is unfortunate because during settlement talks in 2010, Lexam became a willing seller of their mineral rights, asking $ 8.3 million.

SLVEC and WPC have teamed up with Trust for Public Land (TPL) and have contracted with a consultant to do a Mineral Remoteness Study. This study will bring much-needed hard valuation facts into the negotiations with Lexam. This study will be completed in June.  It would be ideal if Lexam were not in the position of investing further in exploration, but rather, would be encouraged towards acquisition negotiations moving forward.

SLVEC and WPC are considering reopening the lawsuit with Judge Miller which has been administratively closed because of the stipulated settlement. Over the next month serious discussions will be occurring regarding analysis of options. Stay tuned.