Feds to consider oil, gas drilling in Utah wildlife refuge

Published: Tuesday, March 5 2013 1:23 p.m. MST

A drilling rig towers over a natural gas well west of Rifle, Colo. Energy companies hunting for natural gas are snapping up land and mineral rights in much of the Rockies, either through old oil shale claims or through federal auctions. Many area residents are opposed to the development. Because the federal government does not own the mineral rights, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now preparing an analysis on a proposal to open a national wildlife refuge in Uintah County to more oil and gas drilling.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

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VERNAL — Because the federal government does not own the mineral rights, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now preparing an analysis on a proposal to open a national wildlife refuge in Uintah County to more oil and gas drilling.

While the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge may seem to be an unlikely place to host such activity, several wells have been developed in the past 10 years and more are in varying stages of development.

Those wells are being tapped through mineral rights that are owned by the Ute Tribe, private individuals or the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

This latest proposal involves the Ouray NWR 9-Well Development project proposed by Axia Energy, which wants to drill, complete and operate nine oil and gas wells from five well pad locations.

Axia was assigned the mineral rights under refuge lands from Stonegate Resources in May of 2011. The project involves the construction and maintenance of access roads, pipelines and overhead power lines.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Axia plans to use directional drilling for multiple wells to minimize surface ground disturbance. Each well pad will average 2.4 acres and a new half-mile access would have to be built.

Diane Penttila, the refuge's biologist, said the agency is required to complete the environmental analysis on the proposal and is soliciting input from the public on what issues should be addressed in the document.

The 12,000-acre refuge southwest of Vernal was established in 1961 and includes a diverse ecosystem made up of forests, wetlands, 12 miles of the Green River and grasslands. It is home to four species of endangered fish, a hatchery and a species of endangered cactus not found elsewhere.

Pentilla said many of the visitors to the refuge enjoy seeing ample herds of mule deer and elk.

A 30-day comment period on the Axia Energy proposal ends April 3. Comments should be submitted in writing or by mail to the Ouray NWR Office, HC 69, Randlett, Utah 84063, or by email to cris_dippel@fws.gov.

For more information, call the Ouray NWR Office at 435.545.2522, extension 13.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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