Tribe and BLM assess impact of exploration

Officials are assessing impacts of shale development on tribal land over a 20 year period. BLM and the Southern Ute Tribe also signed a settlement on fracking rule litigation.

Farmington Daily Times
A pumpjack on Southern Ute land, as seen Nov. 16 off County Road 213, south of Durango, Colo.

FARMINGTON – The Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe are preparing a broad-scale analysis for shale formation oil and gas production on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, according to Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager of the BLM's Tres Rios Field Office Bureau in Colorado.

“All previous (impact statements) were specific to conventional oil and gas development, the majority of which was coal bed methane gas,” said Abernathy. “This supplement will be specifically for oil and gas development from shale over a period of 20 years, and it will supplement that National Energy Environmental Policy documentation.”

The draft supplemental environmental impact statement should be available for public review and comment in the spring of 2017.

Abernathy said there are currently no proposed shale wells and no specific proposals for particular areas to drill, but he said if and when the oil and gas market picks up and future shale wells are drilled on Southern Ute Indian Reservation lands, those proposals will be subject to further environmental analysis, with authorities continuing to monitor the cumulative impacts of any drilling.

The Southern Ute Indian Reservation spans three counties in southern Colorado — La Plata, Montezuma and Archuleta — according to information on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund’s website. The proposed action includes development related to future drilling of 1,534 wells on 352 well pads.

“That number (1,534 wells) was chosen just as a foreseeable development scenario, based on a high-end estimate of a number of wells over a period of 20 years,” said Abernathy. “We wanted to overestimate the amount of wells, just in case.”

A pumpjack on Southern Ute land, as seen Nov. 16 off County Road 318 near Ignacio, Colo.

Abernathy said the formations involved in the analysis are Mancos shale gas; Mancos Niobrara shale; Lewis shale; and Paradox shale.

Also recently announced was finalization of an agreement between the Department of Justice, the BLM and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe pertaining to regulation of hydraulic fracturing on Southern Ute land in southwestern Colorado.

A BLM and Southern Ute Indian Tribe release dated Nov. 4 stated that the new rule will update the BLM’s existing oil and gas regulations to address technological advances in hydraulic fracturing. Per the agreement, the tribe will serve as the primary regulatory authority for hydraulic fracturing on Southern Ute lands, while working with the BLM in administering the oil and gas resources.

“The rule aims to ensure wellborn integrity, water quality protection, and public disclosure of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The rule also contains a provision that allows laws of Indian tribes and states to apply, instead of the BLM’s rule, if the tribal or state provision meets or exceeds the objectives of the relevant provision of the BLM’s rule,” said the release.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe adopted its own rules in 2015 governing hydraulic fracturing, and filed a separate lawsuit challenging the BLM’s hydraulic fracturing rule.

Part of the settlement resulted in a Memorandum of Agreement developed by both the BLM and Southern Ute Indian Tribe that will govern their cooperation regarding oil and gas resource administration.

“We recognize the expertise of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in cooperatively developing and regulating oil and gas development on their lands,” wrote Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider in the Nov, 4 release. “This expertise is reflected in the rules the Tribe has put in place. Today’s agreement paves the way for a new level of collaboration between the BLM and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in administering the Tribe’s oil and gas resources.”

Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Clement Frost wrote, “We filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior challenging the BLM rule because we felt that tribal input had been ignored. Once we had the chance to sit across the table from each other in meaningful discussion, we recognized that we shared many of the same goals, including the exercise of sovereignty by the Tribe over Southern Ute lands. We are glad that we have resolved this dispute in a government-to-government manner.”

Parties will now file settlement documents with the U.S. District Court in Colorado, and seek dismissal of the pending legal action.

More information on the supplemental environmental impact statement pertaining to shale formation analysis can be found at

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.