Construction work on a system of 19 natural gas gathering pipelines in the Big Flat area could begin as early as this month.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week approved Fidelity Exploration and Production’s request to tie existing and future oil and gas well pads into the recently-constructed Dead Horse Lateral Pipeline.
Fidelity now plans to build more than 25 miles of low-pressure gathering lines across federal and state lands ― including 22.5 miles of buried lines, as well as 2.8 miles of surface lines ― at various points along state Route 313 and Dubinky Well Road. The main Dead Horse line, in turn, will feed into a new natural gas processing plant near Blue Hills Road north of Moab.
The BLM anticipates that it will take the company one to two weeks to build each gathering line, and the entire project could take about five months to finish, according to the agency’s Environmental Assessment.
Fidelity spokesman Tim Rasmussen said his company initially anticipated that the BLM would issue its decision in April. It also hoped that the BLM’s action would be more in line with the company’s proposal.
“We feel that our original submission presented a better alternative to manage land impacts, since it contained less overall disruption and less visual impact. However, the BLM is custodian of public lands, and we can and will work with the final decision,” Rasmussen said Oct. 6.
Conservationists and environmental groups had urged the BLM to prepare a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement on Fidelity’s plans, given the project’s overall size, and the potential for future oil and gas development in the Big Flat area.
Bill Rau, who serves as the vice chairman of the Sierra Club’s Glen Canyon Group, noted that Fidelity’s vision for the area has gone far beyond its initial plans to develop seven or eight wells.
According to Rau, the BLM now expects that Fidelity could develop as many as 77 wells in and near the Cane Creek Unit within the next five to 10 years.
In addition to authorizing work on the 19 gathering lines, the agency’s decision also clarifies Fidelity’s development plan, and Rau is concerned about one of the key changes that has been made.
The BLM has previously noted that it has no authority to regulate low-pressure natural gas gathering lines, including the Dead Horse Lateral. However, the agency said at the time that the project would be built to transmission line standards.
The latest decision says that certain design features will not conform to the transmission line requirements, although the BLM says that design and construction work will meet other specific criteria.
Rau, however, said the change in language affects the ability to build and operate the gathering lines based on the highest degree of public safety requirements.
“It reduces the responsibilities of both the operator and the BLM, and I’m not comfortable with that,” he said.
Rau said that he and others also find it odd that the references to the Dead Horse project popped up in the latest document on the 19 gathering lines.
“It seems strange to a number of us that this gets buried in an Environmental Assessment related to gathering lines,” he said.
The BLM counters that numerous safeguards have been incorporated into the final plan it approved, and it says that the new gathering lines would be operating at very low pressures.
It notes that the highest normal operating pressure of the gathering lines would reach 75 pounds per square inch at the well sites. In comparison, larger natural gas transmission lines typically operate with pressures between 200 to 1,500 pounds per square inch.
Despite concerns from the Sierra Club and others, the agency said it does not consider its decision to be “highly controversial,” because there are not any substantial disputes about the project’s “size, nature or effect.”
“The project is not unique or unusual,” BLM Moab Field Manager Beth Ransel wrote in the agency’s Finding of No Significant Impact on the project. “The BLM has experience implementing similar actions within the Moab Field Office.”
The BLM said it believes the project will ultimately benefit regional air quality.
Fidelity has been flaring about 2 million cubic feet of natural gas from its oil wells into the atmosphere each day, and the BLM said the new gathering line system will reduce those emissions to almost nothing, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Rasmussen said that his company is anxious to get started on the first phase of construction, which is expected to last about three months.
“Our goal is to commission the gathering system and plant as soon as possible in order to minimize the flaring of the valuable natural gas resource,” Rasmussen said.
The timing of construction is right, he said, since tourist numbers in the area are lower toward the end of the year. Adverse weather, however, could impact construction and create some delays.
“We are planning on working diligently on construction so that we can get most of the lines installed by year-end, pending weather impacts,” he said.
The projected start date is considerably behind Fidelity’s original schedule, according to Rasmussen.
The company’s permit to exceed Utah’s statewide flaring allowance for natural gas was set to expire on June 30. With no BLM decision on the immediate horizon, Rasmussen said the company applied for and received an extension to the flaring allowance through the end of 2014.
Although the company is behind the schedule it envisioned, Rau believes that BLM officials need to sit down and hammer out some additional details regarding pipeline safety in the Big Flat area.
“This is a heavily-used recreation area where this pipeline is, so the highest degree of pipeline safety is required,” he said.
Rau also wants the agency to specifically identify where the company will obtain water for hydrostatic testing. During the tests, the company will be flushing about 500,000 gallons of water through the gathering lines to determine that none of them are leaking, according to Rau.
The BLM says the water would come from a permitted source, or a private owner with valid water rights. But it does not identify whether the water usage could potentially put a strain on the City of Moab’s culinary water supplies.
“They haven’t identified where it’s coming from at this point, which is odd,” Rau said. “Given the history, I think the public needs to be aware that there’s ongoing pressure on the water supply.”
In its response to public comments on the gathering lines, the BLM says the overall issue of culinary water usage at the project site goes beyond the scope of the Environmental Assessment.
Fidelity to begin work on 19 gathering lines; Sierra Club voices concerns
We feel that our original submission presented a better alternative to manage land impacts, since it contained less overall disruption and less visual impact. However, the BLM is custodian of public lands, and we can and will work with the final decision
To learn more about the agency’s decision, go to: https://www.blm.gov/ut/enbb/files/FINAL_EA_Gathering_Lines_10-02-2014.pdf.