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Public questions Baca plan, round two

Posted: Friday, Jan 28th, 2011

CRESTONE — With a little more than a week before the comment period closes, representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service met with Crestone area residents Wednesday night to discuss a proposed environmental assessment of oil and gas exploration on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

This is the second go-around for this type of assessment, with the first thrown out as part of a lawsuit settlement.

Notable changes with the new environmental assessment (EA) include more discussion on an alternative to purchase the mineral rights currently held by Lexam, which proposes to drill test wells under the Baca. Lexam is willing to sell its mineral rights. The current asking price is $8.4 million.

Another notable change in the new EA involves deeper casing requirements for the test wells.

Lexam proposes to drill two test wells. Under the proposed draft EA, Lexam would agree to drill the first well and determine whether a second is required before disturbing the surface and building infrastructure such as roads for the second well.

The EA considers three alternatives, one of which is the mineral rights purchase. Another alternative would require no additional restrictions other than those imposed under existing oil and gas commission regulations.

The third, and preferred, alternative adds another layer of restrictions, such as the deeper well casings.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will accept comments on the draft EA until February 7. The draft may be viewed online at http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/bacaNWR.html, or call Project Leader Mike Blenden at 589-4021 to view a copy.

Comments may be submitted no later than February 7 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, Colo. 80225-0486 or via email to: BacaDraftEAComments@fws.gov

Residents are meeting tonight (Friday, Jan. 28) at 6:30 p.m. at the POA in Crestone to compile comments.

Area residents had a number of questions for Fish and Wildlife representatives during the public forum in Crestone on Wednesday.

Some of those questions and answers follow:

QUESTION: Who decides if the federal government purchases the mineral rights, and are there any laws preventing that?

ANSWER: The FWS has not bought mineral rights before, but if it did, the purchase would likely have to be ranked through the FWS land acquisition priority system, a competitive process because of limited funds. It would be based on fair market value. The FWS director in Washington D.C. generally negotiates the budget with the office of budget for the secretary of the interior. There are no laws preventing the purchase of mineral rights, but the government is prohibited from condemning them to acquire them in this particular area.

QUESTION: Why an environmental assessment and not the more comprehensive environmental impact statement?

ANSWER: FWS staff did not feel the criteria for an environmental impact statement were met with this project because of minimal surface disturbance and minimal threat to humans, but after this EA is presented, FWS Regional Director Stephen Guertin will decide if a full-blown environmental impact statement should be performed.

QUESTION: How much did you analyze the impact to the community and take their concerns into account?

ANSWER: The FWS staff believed they had taken those concerns under consideration, but the U.S. Geological Survey’s social science branch served as consultants to provide a checks and balances in that regard. Every scoping comment was reviewed line by line, then summarized and categorized.

QUESTION: How do you plan to protect the aquifer?

ANSWER: Another consultant, PBS&J, helped the FWS staff examine this aspect. As a result, this proposed EA requires extra well casing to a level below the deep confined aquifer.

QUESTION: Did you specifically address the impact of sound?

ANSWER: Yes, and sound levels will be monitored to make sure they stay below the levels acceptable under the oil and gas regulations. A new piece of information available this time around was a 2008 sound study performed at the Great Sand Dunes National Park that confirmed what area residents had commented about the Baca area - it is quieter than FWS folks had originally thought. The FWS had not taken Saguache County’s noise ordinance into account because they were unaware of it but said they would also look at that.

QUESTION: How is the water availability and use going to be handled? And drilling fluids?

ANSWER: The water Lexam will require on site will either have to be acquired through a substitute supply plan from an existing nearby well or trucked in. As far as drilling fluids, the FWS would require Lexam to operate under a closed loop system. Any chemicals would have to be exported to a state approved site.

QUESTION: How will sub-contractors be held accountable and informed of the requirements placed on Lexam?

ANSWER: They will have to adhere to the same requirements placed on Lexam, and natural resource advisors will be on site throughout the operation to make sure they do.

QUESTION: Has oil/gas drilling been denied in the past on national wildlife refuges in the U.S.?

ANSWER: “There’s no legal way to say ‘no’ for that mineral owner to access those minerals,” Blenden said.

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