Proposed Development of Oil and Gas Threatens Farming and Ranching Communities in the Upper North Fork Valley (press release 1.31.14)
Conservationists filed suit today challenging the federal government’s approval of a new natural gas development in the Gunnison National Forest without conducting the legally required analysis of environmental impacts. The plan calls for as many as five gas wells near the Little Henderson Creek, part of the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
In addition to providing clean water to downstream communities, this area provides prime winter habitat for elk. Despite the importance of this area for clean water and healthy elk herds, the Forest Service failed to consider the broader, cumulative impacts to these important resources when this oil and gas project is viewed alongside other existing and planned development in the area. The area has been increasingly targeted by industry for large-scale development of oil and gas resources, including a 150-well project in the nearby Bull Mountain area.
“Each well they drill and frack requires up to a thousand truck trips, carrying fracking fluid chemicals and other heavy equipment,” said Mark Waltermire of Thistle Whistle Farm. “If there’s a big spill, or one of those trucks crashes and contaminates the ditch water we rely on, we would pay the price. We can’t risk our water supply.”
The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA), filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking to overturn the Forest Service’s decision authorizing the gas wells.
Federal law requires the Forest Service to look before it leaps. In other words, the agency must fully consider the potential impacts of an oil and gas development project such as this before granting its approval. This includes, among other things, consideration of impacts to vital resources such as clean water and air, wildlife, and recreation. Here, the Forest Service failed to consider any of the impacts from this project and instead miss-applied agency regulations in order to avoid doing any analysis altogether.
As local Gunnison County sportsman and HCCA staffer, Brett Henderson, pointed out, there are inherent problems with bypassing the environmental review:
“If you set up a can in your backyard for target practice, and shoot at it all afternoon, after a while it’s no longer a can, just a tattered piece of metal. The same principle applies to what we’re seeing in the North Fork. After a certain amount of oil and natural gas development, it will no longer be a forest with prime elk habitat, but rather patches of trees on an industrial landscape.”
The conservation groups are seeking to prevent the industrialization of the forest as a result of faulty process.
“The Forest Service has relied upon a faulty piecemeal approval system that is allowing for unsuitable industrialized oil and gas development on the Gunnison National Forest,” said Kyle Tisdel, lead attorney from the Western Environmental Law Center. “The resources that North Fork communities rely on—clean water, clean air, a healthy hunting economy—are all at risk because the Forest Service has failed to do a legally required, thorough analysis of the impacts.”