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Feds contemplate oil, gas drilling at Ouray refuge in Utah

Published: Tuesday, March 11 2014 3:55 p.m. MDT

The Colorado Pikeminnow is an endangered fish that inhabits the Colorado River. A pair of proposals to drill oil and gas wells at the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge are up for review through early April. The refuge in eastern Utah is already home to a half-dozen active wells, four endangered fish species, and rare cacti.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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SALT LAKE CITY — While a national wildlife refuge may appear to be an improbable location to drill for natural gas or oil, two companies are seeking to do just that at the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Utah.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released assessments on the proposals and is seeking input from the public through April 8.

Development of the wells at the nearly 12,000-acre refuge can happen because the federal government owns the land but not the subsurface mineral rights.

Over the past decade, several wells have been developed, tapping mineral rights owned by the Ute Tribe, private individuals or the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

The Utah situation is not an anomaly. The federal agency manages oil and gas operations on one-fourth of the 558 national wildlife refuges in the system. The refuge in Utah is already home to at least a half-dozen active wells involving state-owned mineral rights.

In this instance, the environmental assessment on the proposal by Thurston Energy Operating Co. is to spend a year developing two oil and gas wells on two pads, each about 1.6 acres. The wells would be drilled to a depth of 7,000 feet and have an operational life of 30 to 40 years before being reclaimed.

Another proposal by Ultra Resources Inc. encompasses the drilling and operation of nine oil and gas wells from five pad locations, each at 1.6 acres. An environmental assessment has also been released on Ultra's proposal, which features a project area of 1,659 acres, including 1,376 acres on refuge property.

Both assessments include mitigation measures the companies must take to offset impacts, including effects on wildlife such as nesting raptors and thriving deer populations. The federal government is also requiring steps to minimize air pollution given the Uintah Basin's trouble with high ozone levels in the wintertime.

The refuge was established in the 1960s and serves as a "genetic" haven for the four listed Colorado River endangered fish: the razorback sucker, the Colorado pikeminnow, the humpback chub and the bonytail chub. An endangered species of cactus is also found there. It includes a diverse ecosystem made up of forests, wetlands, 12 miles of the Green River and grasslands.

The service notes it is obligated to provide maximum protection of the refuge but provide mineral owners reasonable access and exploration rights to their mineral estates.

A paper copy of the assessments can be reviewed at the Ouray NWR Office at HC 69, 19001 Wildlife Refuge Road, Randlett, UT 84063. Comments should be submitted in writing by mail to the Ouray NWR Office or by email to sonja_jahrsdoerfer@fws.gov.

More information on the proposals is available by calling the refuge office at 435-545-2522.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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