Fed plan to allow drilling near Colorado’s Sangres, Dunes poses epic eco peril

Author: Jeff Briggs - June 20, 2018 - Updated: June 16, 2018

Jeff Briggs

The Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to lease mineral rights for oil and gas exploration on 11 land parcels totaling 18,358 acres in Huerfano County come this fall. Four of the parcels border the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area and all 11 are within eight miles of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Every one of those 18,358 acres makes up drainage for the upper Huerfano River Basin and are connected to the Arkansas River system.

A shortened public comment period certainly revealed the wide opposition to such an egregious proposal — with submissions citing the interconnectivity, drinking water, ecological and economic crises that could result from fracking here. Over 4,000 comments submitted and almost almost unanimous in their opposition. This lease area is a geological spectacle, including thrust belts and faults resulting from the creation of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and past seismic events.

Even though Shell Oil tried to claim that water sources underneath three of the proposed wells near this lease area were non-tributary or totally isolated, it’s simply untrue. That claim was refuted by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, citing evidence that vertical dikes that stretch above the surface all the way down to other faults and belts are considered possible water conduits along their fault lines. That finding makes all of this water beneath the drilling areas tributary or connected water.

Consider that it takes between 1.5 to 5 million gallons of water for one frack. If that water is tributary, it has to be either augmented by other water rights or trucked in from out of county. In either case, the polluted water downhole both from the existing aquifers and the injected water will likely migrate and harm several water bodies. Drilling in the lease area — with its attendant roads, wastewater, possible injection wells, its resulting air and light pollution, the carcinogenic quality of fracking fluids — will seriously affect the Upper Huerfano River Basin. With that comes not only damage to all wildlife and human habitation therein but also potential, significant impacts for our beloved wilderness area and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We need a hydrogeologic study — one that tells us the effects on water — as part of a larger environmental impact statement to address dangers to all life forms. It must determine a true map of water flow, even cross drainage, and along geological formations. But the BLM — under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership — has truncated the National Environmental Protection Act process and now shortcuts analysis of large environmental systems. That’s terrible news for these lands — as the Great Sand Dunes National Park morphed from being a smaller national monument to its larger size because of the interrelated qualities shared with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Wilderness Area, the San Luis Valley, and the Rio Grande River system.

Zinke’s environmental disregard speeds up drilling in finding that the whole leasing process complies “bureaucratically” with management plans but causes no environmental damage. BLM even isolates analysis on proposed well sites to their immediate surrounding areas, making it much easier for them to find no significant environmental impact and consequently greenlighting drilling. These short-sighted environmental assessments do nothing to analyze real dangers to all life. The even broader effects of this current federal approach reduces citizen participation by narrowing the scope of legal concerns, diminishing legal standing for protest and short-circuiting the whole purpose and foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Zinke’s allegiances certainly lean toward extractive, polluting industries.

The Huerfano County lease area serves ranching, grazing, wildlife habitat including huge herds of elk. It’s a hunting, fishing and recreation hotspot and provides access to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. If it’s opened for drilling, all those uses will be restricted and even terminated. The detrimental use — drilling — shouldn’t be able to harm a host of others. Even more, any money from leasing this land that would go to the state of Colorado or Huerfano County surely would be offset by environmental damage.

These industrial and governmental assaults on public and private lands already witnessed at Chaco Canyon, Zion National Park and other iconic natural areas need to be stopped. Our energy needs should become less one-sighted and more sustainable. Our special natural and open spaces deserve defense and should be protected so that the public health and safety is prioritized.

Jeff Briggs

Jeff Briggs

Jeff Briggs is president of the Citizens For Huerfano County in Gardner, where he has lived for decades.