BLM retiree, environmentalist bridge gaps to safeguard wildlife
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Clare Bastable and Bob Elderkin seem like an odd couple when it comes to environmental activism.
Bastable, 30, has worked with wilderness organizations and is a conservation coordinator for the Colorado Mountain Club. Elderkin, 66, worked for the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey.
Elderkin, a former rodeo bull and saddle bronc rider, goes by horseback on hunting trips into the backcountry. Bastable doesn’t hunt, though she admires people who get their food “the old fashioned way.”
Yet it doesn’t take long to realize the differences are complementary. Bastable and Elderkin have helped unite environmentalists, hunters, anglers, hikers and others tracking the booming energy development in western Colorado, which is cheered by some for the economic boost and feared by others for its potential impacts.
The two recently teamed with other activists in suggesting guidelines for gas drilling, including a proposal that well pads be spaced one per 620 acres. The typical spacing in the area is one pad per 40 acres.
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Several wells can be drilled from one pad by boring a hole both vertically and horizontally to angle around and hit more of the pockets of gas. Elderkin believes a company could recover all the gas by drilling 64 wells from one 20- to 25-acre pad.
The advantages include fewer roads and pipelines and less traffic. Elderkin and Bastable said it might be possible to eliminate some of the seasonal restrictions on drilling because of wildlife, since development would be confined to one area at a time and animals could go elsewhere.
Industry and government officials have been skeptical.
“I’m very concerned about putting one big pad in the middle. I’m not absolutely convinced that one is better than two smaller ones,” said Jamie Connell, director of the BLM office in Glenwood Springs.
She said two smaller well pads might be less of an eyesore while still reducing the fragmentation of wildlife habitat.
The area’s steep mountainsides and tight sand formations make extracting the gas difficult, industry officials said.
“We always like to be on the cutting edge and we’re always look at new technologies, so it’s not to say that it can’t be done,” said Dave Cesark, an environmental specialist with Williams Production.
“Eventually, it probably will be done, but there’s definitely a lot of obstacles that have to be overcome when you’re trying to drill 64 wells off one pad.”
There are signs, however, that ideas being advanced by Elderkin, Bastable and such groups as the Colorado Mule Deer Association and the Colorado Wildlife Association are striking a few chords. BLM officials have raised similar ideas, such as clustering development in blocks, during recent meetings with state and local officials. The state Department of Natural Resources proposed a variation of the concepts in a subsequent forum.
EnCana Oil and Gas USA, one of the largest operators in the Rockies, has managed to drill a well on a test site with a horizontal displacement of about 4,000 feet, said Darrin Henke, the company’s team leader in the northern Piceance Basin. The displacement is the distance from the point of entry to the underground pocket of gas.
Drilling from one pad per square mile might require a well be drilled nearly 3,000 feet from the surface to the end of the hole. Although EnCana has done that on its private property, Henke said, it takes more time and money. He said drilling from one big pad could actually increase the traffic and air pollution because it takes longer to drill at such angles.
“It’s not always a panacea,” Henke said.
Although Elderkin and Bastable agree the BLM should require more innovative approaches from companies, they split on whether the agency should allow drilling on top of the mineral-rich Roan Plateau.
The 9,000-foot western Colorado landmark, most of which is federal land, stretches out into steep hills, valleys where elk, deer, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and bears can be found.
Bastable thinks the top of the plateau should be off-limits. Elderkin doesn’t oppose drilling on the top if it’s done responsibly ” “and that’s a big ‘if.”‘
They agree, however, there are plenty of examples of what should and shouldn’t be done in the gas and oil fields in Wyoming and New Mexico, where development has been full-bore in some spots for a while.
“We’re the people that live here. The industry’s going to be in and out and we want to maintain some sort of semblance of pride for our landscape and our public lands,” Bastable said. “It’s high time for these agencies, especially the BLM, to start thinking outside the box.”
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