Agency refuses to green-light project in absence of hydraulic fracturing analysis

Grand Junction, Colo.

In a victory for residents of Whitewater and everyone concerned with air and water quality in western Colorado, the state office of the Bureau of Land Management put the brakes on a proposal to drill 108 wells on 52,000 acres near the Grand Mesa.

BLM remanded the plan to its Grand Junction Field Office for further environmental review based on the fact that the plan did not analyze hydraulic fracturing. “It is clear that the development cannot occur without some form of hydraulic fracturing,” Deputy State Director for Energy, Lands and Minerals Lonny Bagley said in the decision.

“As an impacted landowner in Whitewater, I am mighty glad the BLM is taking a harder look at this proposal,” said rancher and Western Colorado Congress member Don Lumbardy. “My ranch depends on the water from the springs in this area, and I have a well that I rely on for drinking water, so I was troubled about possible impacts to my livelihood and property.”

Fram Exploration filed a master development plan for the project in 2010. Initially planned as a natural gas project, Fram switched gears after striking oil. The company filed a plan to drill 108 vertical wells over four years, then expand into horizontal drilling, all in a residential and agricultural area home to Mesa County’s water supply.

Analysis of impacts from fracking was included in the draft environmental assessment for the project, but was later removed. Emails provided to environmental advocates indicate the decision to remove the analysis was based on Fram’s representation that it planned to use hydraulic fracturing only later in the project’s life, if at all. 

In response, a contractor working for BLM suggested to Fram that future wells involving hydraulic fracturing could be approved using “categorical exclusions” – rubber-stamp approvals that circumvent environmental analysis, and thus no analysis of fracking in the plan was needed. But, more recently, Fram submitted applications for permits to drill indicating fracking would occur immediately.

“The BLM made an error when it omitted any analysis of fracking,” said Laura King, attorney with the Western Environmental law Center. “We are grateful BLM has now acknowledged its error and will go back to get it right. However, we will be following this project closely to ensure that all necessary analysis is completed before any further leasing and development is allowed to occur in Grand Junction’s and Palisade’s water and airsheds.”

Over objections from residents and advocates, the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office approved the Whitewater MDP in 2014. Using an environmental assessment – a lower-standard process than the environmental impact statement that project opponents had requested – BLM found no significant impact from the project.

Impacted residents and advocates, aided by the Western Environmental Law Center, filed a request for Colorado State Director Ruth Welch to review the project’s National Environmental Protection Act documentation as an alternative to litigation.

As a result of this administrative engagement, the BLM state director will send the plan back to the Grand Junction Field Office for further environmental analysis, with specific instructions to look at its fracking impacts.

“The BLM has done the right thing in reassessing Fram’s drilling proposal,” said Karen Sjoberg of Citizens for Clean Air. “We found the original project plans flawed in both process and substance. More than a hundred oil wells on the Grand Mesa have the potential to adversely affect an already problematic wintertime air inversion, as well as a rising ozone level during the summer months, and area residents deserve a closer look at air quality effects.”

Fram Exploration planned to move into the area with applications for permits to drill in 2014 to maintain its lease rights through active production. Instead of authorizing this drilling, BLM suspended the unit, halting activity pending further analysis.

“Mesa and Delta county community groups came together to hold BLM accountable to a rigorous environmental analysis of this large drilling proposal,” said Wayne “Wano” Urbonas, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This is a good day for citizen-based watchdogs fighting irresponsible oil and gas development.”  

“Residents in this area have legitimate concerns about impacts to our air and water, and we finally feel like we are being heard. It’s time to have an adult conversation about this project and give our concerns the in-depth analysis they deserve. I look forward to having that conversation with the BLM,” Lumbardy concluded.

A copy of the decision is available here.

Don Lumbardy, impacted resident, spokesperson for Western Colorado Congress, 970-250-5204
Karen Sjoberg, chairperson, Citizens for Clean Air, 970-242-1054
Laura King, staff attorney, Western Environmental Law Center, 406-204-2852, Wayne Urbonas, director, Citizens for a Healthy Community, 970-399-9700

Read more about WELC’s work on this issue here.

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