HD Mountains returns to spotlight
Draft coalbed methane study to be released

The view from high in the HD Mountains east of Bayfield. In coming weeks, a draft study of impacts from proposed local gas development, which includes wells in this Roadless Area, will be released. /Photo courtesy San Juan Citizens’ Alliance.

Local gas development is sure to stir up controversy in coming weeks as the planning process for hundreds of new coalbed methane wells leaves the back burner. Breaking months of deadlock, the San Juan Public Lands Center says that a draft environmental impact statement will be released early next month and the pristine HD Mountains near Bayfield are among the places earmarked for drilling.

For the last two years, the San Juan Public Lands Center has worked to assess the impacts of drilling 297 new coalbed methane wells in southeast La Plata County and southwest Archuleta County. A variety of natural gas, methane often lies underground along coal seams. Locally, the gas- and oil-rich San Juan Basin stretches through Northern New Mexico and into southwest Colorado. The enormous circular depression is surrounded by the Fruitland outcrop, a methane-rich, coalbed formation. Nearly half of the 297 wells would be located in local areas that have already seen gas development. The remaining wells are slated for the HD Mountains, a pristine roadless area east of Bayfield.

A long time coming

Walt Brown, the project leader with the San Juan Public Lands Center, said that the draft “Northern San Juan Basin Coalbed Methane Environmental Impact Statement” should be available in early November. He noted that the draft was expected months ago but has been hindered by the complexity of the issue.

“We’ve been saying it for a long time, but we’re pulling the pieces together, and we should have a draft EIS out and available for comment early in November,” Brown said.

Brown characterizes the draft as “a gas development document” and said it was triggered by an industry request to develop more methane locally.

“From the public perspective, the HD Mountains are the focus,” Brown said. “But we’re responding to an industry proposal for 300 new wells on public and private land.”

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, said that delays in the draft’s release have become a running joke. “We’ve talked about printing up T-shirts that say, ‘The EIS will be out in a month,’” Pearson said.

Eviscerating a roadless area

However, the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance views potential impact to the HD Mountains as no laughing matter. “There’s probably nothing else in the last 50 years that would be such a massive transformation of the local landscape,” Pearson said. “This will completely eviscerate the roadless area from one end to the other. There’s no other proposal in Colorado that I know of that would do that.”

Located east of Bayfield, the HD Mountains Roadless Area covers nearly 35,000 acres. Pearson said that the area includes some of the highest quality old-growth ponderosa pine in the state; prime habitat for deer, elk, bear, turkey and the rare Mexican spotted owl; hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites; and is a recreational amenity for hikers, mountain bikers, hunters and horseback riders. The proposal would disrupt or destroy all of these features, he said.

“It would essentially lace the roadless area from one end to the other with roads and new wells,” Pearson said.

Specifically addressing the old-growth trees, Pearson added, “Every single old-growth stand would have a road or well right in the middle of it.”

An pump-jack east of Durango on Florida Mesa works tirelessly to pull fuel to the surface. Nearly 300 new wells are being proposed for southeast La Plata
and southwest Archuleta counties, including inside the pristine HD Mountains Roadless Area. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Something in the water

On a human scale, drilling in the HD Mountains could also severely impact Bayfield’s water supply and create methane contamination and unwanted seeps along the Fruitland outcrop. Leisa Glass, San Juan Citizens’ Alliance’s HD Mountains Coordinator, commented, “The eventual contamination of water and loss of water have all been documented even by the industry’s research.”

As a result of these threats, a diverse group known as the HD Mountains Coalition has been meeting once a month and strategizing. Glass has been involved with the coalition since its inception and says there is a sense that the drilling is being ram-rodded through from on high.

“There’s a push to get this through without any real analysis,” Glass said. “People in the coalition are wondering why not put it off and do a proper analysis.”

She added that a recent study commissioned by San Juan Citizens’ Alliance reported that the drilling in the HD’s would fuel only two days of national usage. “For all that destruction, it’s only two days,” she said.

Trying to get horizontal

The Board of La Plata County Commissioners is another entity that has expressed its reservations over the proposed drilling of the HD Mountains. The commissioners have already drafted a letter to the public land managers urging the use of horizontal drilling in the roadless area to minimize impacts and expressing concern that it has been dropped from consideration. Commission chair Josh Joswick commented, “What we’re concerned about is the removal of directional and horizontal drilling from the plan. We don’t know why they were removed other than for the economic benefit of the oil and gas companies.”

Joswick also referenced the limited supply of methane in the HD Mountains. “Personally speaking, I don’t see any reason to go into the HDs for the amount of gas that’s there,” he said. “But if they are going in, I’d like to see it done as sensitively as possible.”

Trading wilderness for wells

Pearson said that another irony of the plan to drill the HD Mountains is that it coincides with ongoing efforts to revise the San Juan National Forest Plan. One of the requirements of forest plan revision is that all roadless areas be considered for their potential value as designated wilderness and consequently protected from mechanized uses.

Pearson said that while the Hermosa Creek Roadless Area is being considered for its value as wilderness, the HD Mountains Roadless Area is not being given consideration. “They should look at wilderness potential for the HDs just like any other roadless area,” Pearson argued.

However, Brown countered that the HD Mountains slipped out of the wilderness picture nearly two decades ago. “The forest plan will probably be revised in the near future, but in the meantime, we have a proposal on our plates that reflects 20 years of planning,” he said. “When the roadless area was inventoried in the late ’70s, there was a decision to not make it wilderness. The land was identified as suitable for multiple uses.”

Whether the public agrees with that designation will begin to be weighed after the forthcoming release of the draft EIS. Brown said that, to date, the San Juan Public Lands Center has received more than 2,000 letters and comments on the proposal but expects many more. However, he said that addressing concerns and impacts has been a big part of the reason it has taken so long to release a draft EIS.

“I’m sure we’ll get a lot of comments,” Brown said. “But one of the reasons it’s taken so long is we’ve really been working on addressing all of the issues with this document.”






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