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Settlement Puts Drilling Project On Hold In Gunnison Natl. Forest

Flickr user diwineanddine

Last Friday saw two big developments concerning oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.

The same day the environmental impact study was released for the Bull Mountain Unit just north of Paonia, a settlement was reached between the Forest Service and environmentalists over drilling in the Gunnison National Forest.  Five wells were proposed in the forest near the Little Henderson Creek, a small tributary of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.  Under this new settlement, the approval for the project is put on hold until an environmental impact statement can be made for that specific area.  Kyle Tisdel is an attorney with Western Environmental Law Center, the group that brought the suit on behalf of Citizens for a Health Community and High Country Conservation Advocates. 

“The agency originally attempted to approve the project through a categorical exclusion,” says Tisdel, “which is a process where the agency doesn’t do any analysis of the environmental impacts of the project, but outright says that it’s not going to have any impact on the environment at all. 

“They originally tried to approve the project through one type of categorical exclusion.  We administratively appealed that process, and the agency agreed with us and withdrew that original approval.  Unfortunately, they went and tried to approve the project a second time through a different categorical exclusion,” he says. 

That categorical exclusion he talks about is a way to bypass the lengthy environmental review process when it’s deemed as unnecessary. 

“They’re typically reserved for things like ‘needing to build a shed’ on our public lands, so very small projects.  They are used in oil and gas development, but they are typically used in cases where there has been previous environmental analysis that has of the broader area, where they know what impacts might occur, and then it’s used on maybe one well.  Here, there has been no underlying analysis that has ever been done of this area where the well is being planned,” says Tisdel.

So the law center and the forest service came to an agreement that the service will now do a complete environmental analysis, including a public comment period. 

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