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The bucolic North Fork Valley. Photo by Celia Roberts

Opinion: An Update on Fracking in the North Fork Valley

Eugenia Bone, a nationally known food journalist, cookbook author, and part-time Western Slope resident, gives an update on the continued fight against the industrialization of her community.

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On November 1, 2016, public comments closed on the draft Resource Management Plan (RMP), a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposal for leasing nearly 900,000 acres in Colorado’s North Fork Valley agricultural region to oil and gas extraction. This is an area famed not only for its natural beauty, but also for its extensive network of organic farms—the highest concentration in the state—as well as its winemakers and artisans.

The BLM local field office received an unprecedented 42,000 comments from local residents, tourists, farmers, food consumers, and recreationalists from around the State and the country, all calling for no leasing.  This outpouring of support for the valley’s organic farmers, ranchers, outfitters, and winemakers was due in part to those who read—and answered—our initial call to arms back in October. The Uncompahgre office was overwhelmed by the volume of comments and is still sorting through them. The final RMP is scheduled to come out in the fall, after which the public will have another 30 days to comment.

In the meantime, a new development proposal, called the North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan (NFMMDP), has been submitted to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service by Bill Koch’s Gunnison Energy, LLC. The proposal aims to increase the number of gas wells on existing leases from four wells to 35 wells in the region east of the Bull Mountain project, another highly controversial proposal for 146 wells. (The final decision regarding Bull Mountain has not been issued yet.) More wells means more roads, more pollution, more water use, and more disposal of wastewater into injector wells—and all of this would be happening just north of the Paonia reservoir.

Opposing the continual influx of development proposals such as the RMP and the NFMMDP is like playing whack-a-mole, only the mole is an existential threat to the valley’s longstanding, sustainable businesses. But the pressure is on, because the American extraction industry is looking toward future sales overseas: Jera, a Japanese energy procurement company, has been pushing for federal approval of a liquefied natural gas terminal in Jordan Cove, Oregon and an associated pipeline that would export Colorado gas to Asia. (The Jordan Cove project is in limbo right now, as Jera hasn’t been able to prove market demand and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied a permit hearing in December 2016. It’s also worth noting that the FERC is currently in turmoil. Chairman Norman Bay resigned on January 26, leaving the commission without a quorum to make decisions, which actually might not be a bad thing.)

This new proposal for oil and gas development (NFMMDP) covers the most geologically unstable land in the state, according to David Noe, a retired Colorado Geological Survey geologist who has mapped the area. The instability of this land is the reason you encounter rockslides on Highway 133 west of McClure Pass. Western Slope earthquakes occur naturally, and to a small degree—there have been at least four 2.0-plus earthquakes recorded in the area over the past month—but this proposal threatens to increase seismic activity; wastewater injection wells are the primary cause of increased earthquake activity in the central United States. (Worth noting: The 5.3 magnitude earthquake in northeast Denver in 1967 was attributed to waste injection wells at Rocky Mountain Arsenal.) What does that mean to us? Rocks the size of chicken coops tumbling onto the highways, and sediment buildup in the headwaters of the North Fork Valley that can damage irrigation and drinking water supplies.

Because leases already exist in the newly proposed area, landowners in the vicinity have been bullied into deals to accommodate pipelines and road use, and must contend with costly, bad-faith negotiations conducted by a phalanx of skilled industry lawyers. That’s bad enough; but additional wells mean the loss of forest, more gravel roads and wide truck turnouts, the constant ringing of back-up alarms, and the droning hum of ’round-the-clock machinery. Additionally, as pointed out by one landowner whose family homesteaded the drill area several generations ago, land values that were based on natural beauty and ready access to pristine wilderness will become only as valuable as the gas that lays beneath the ground. The fact is, people who want to buy a ranch in Colorado’s Western Slope aren’t looking for property next door to a drilling pad.

If the proposal were accepted, that would also mean increased truck traffic—and these are big trucks—on the valley’s country roads. Throughout the 88-day expected duration of constructing the additional wells, more than 1,700 round trips from the well sites to either Carbondale or Grand Junction are anticipated. Then anticipate 37 trips per day for the next three years on the valley’s two-lane highway, according to Gunnison Energy’s proposal. Heavy industrial trucks will pass within meters of the front doors of farm houses, through intersections without traffic lights, and on roads adjacent to the high school sports fields. You can see what that looks like when you drive through Garfield County on Interstate 70, where there are wells in backyards. Road maintenance, according to a Duke University study, will likely fall on the local taxpayer, as will the costs of increased law enforcement and emergency services.

According to Natasha Léger, interim executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a grassroots organization concerned about the risks of large-scale oil and gas development in the community, “Opening up our public lands within and surrounding the valley to oil and gas leasing and approving more drilling pads on private land is a backdoor way to zone the area for industrialization.”

The NFMMDP proposes an intensification of fracking in the middle of the watershed for many organic and sustainable farms down valley. If you have ever enjoyed the fruits and vegetables, the free-range beef, and the hand-made wines of the North Fork Valley—and if you would like to do so for years to come—send a letter to the BLM. The deadline to comment on the NFMMDP is March 22. Send a comment to the BLM here and ask them to protect the organic farms and sustainable business of the North Fork Valley.

Let’s whack this mole.

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