Once again, the North Fork Valley is back on the table for oil and gas development. Despite months of widespread opposition from the community, on Friday, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it plans to offer about 21,000 acres for sale near Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford in February. KVNF’s Ariana Brocious reports on the new proposal.
Ty Gillespie owns Azura Cellars and Gallery, which offers stellar views of the mountains from its perch just above the town of Paonia.
Out here, this is one of the main reasons people come to visit us, we have a spectacular view of the valley and there’s parcels essentially all over here. We could be seeing wells and traffic we don’t have any experience with yet.
Gillespie is also worries that the oil and gas activity could ruin the water they use to make wine. The boundary of one parcel is less than 100 yards from the entrance to his winery.
We’ve really put our heart and soul into this place and if it ends up in the middle of an industrial zone I don’t see that it's going to have any value, and our business certainly can’t exist.
This is the second time this year Gillespie and many NF Valley residents have had to face the potential of large-scale oil and gas development in their backyards. Nearly 30,000 acres were proposed for leasing last December, but were deferred earlier this year. Now, two-thirds of the leases are back up for sale in February. The announcement surprised many who thought the proposal had been shelved indefinitely in response to local opposition. Jim Ramey is director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, one of the local conservation groups that has been opposing the leases since last year.
In short, it's just incredibly disappointing that the agency is moving ahead with this, especially the week of Thanksgiving.
Ramey says the community still has a strong argument to fight the leases.
This is still based on land use plan that is 2 and a half decades old. It doesn’t make sense to even consider leasing these parcels at this time.
The agency’s first revision of that land use plan is expected in April, two months after the scheduled sale. Many in the conservation community are urging the BLM to wait until they finish that plan before considering these leases. But BLM Spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo says the agency can’t afford to wait on all such decisions. And she says that the 280 page environmental review released along with the announcement takes into account land use change in the valley, and the nearly 3,000 public comments they received this year.
As we worked through those comments, through site-specific analysis of the different parcels, we felt that the third that we dropped from the original offer and now was sufficient to address those concerns.
While many of the proposed leases lie next to or near water supplies, schools, organic farms, and homes, Lacayo says the BLM took all those into account in their updated analysis.
Two of the parcels that we dropped in their entirety were due to delineated public water supply areas, which was obviously not there when we went in initially.
Lacayo says removing some parcels—like that on the popular recreation area of Mount Jumbo—and adding specific restrictions to others, satisfies community concerns.
Through those added conditions of approval and through the amended acreage, we felt comfortable moving forward with those acres and making them available for lease.
But Jim Ramey says the BLM’s environmental justification is inconsistent—removing some parcels on the basis of the potentially negative impacts from oil and gas, but leaving others—like the ones next to Ty Gillespie’s winery.
What they’ve done is very contradictory. They've noted elsewhere in the document that drilling for oil and gas could have significant environmental effects and effects on the socioeconomics. But then they’ve continued with almost 2/3 of land originally proposed, saying that at this stage, it's just a lease, it's a paper transaction and there are no impacts. So I'm not sure which argument to believe.
And whose argument to believe is what the community will have to decide. In Monday’s Delta County Commissioner meeting, the county oil and gas expert told the commissioners that the parcels they were most concerned about have been removed. Though the county opposed the first round of leases, he recommends they not oppose this round.
Speculation is rife about who nominated the parcels in the first place, but the BLM doesn’t reveal that information until three days after the sale. A call to an oil and gas industry representative was not returned, but industry experts have expressed doubts about the valley’s oil and gas potential.
Since Friday, conservationists have been moving fast. They have a new Facebook group and are petitioning the Obama administration to withdraw the leases. Ramey says his group and others are fired up and ready to go.
To us, the argument still stays the same. It was a bad idea then, it’s a bad idea now, and we as a community are going to pull together to try and stop it.
For Ty Gillespie, oil and gas simply doesn’t mix with wine.
For so many reasons, it would just be devastating for us if this happens.
Friday’s announcement started a 30 day protest period. Based on the response during the next month, the BLM will choose which of the 20 proposed North Fork leases will ultimately go up for sale. The Colorado BLM State Director will make the final decision. The protest period ends December 17th at 4 PM.