OIL, GAS LEASE PROPOSALS WOULD SHIELD GRASSLANDS

OIL, GAS LEASE PROPOSALS WOULD SHIELD GRASSLANDS

The rules may be about to change in the Cimarron National Grasslands, a

108,000-acre federal preserve in extreme southwest Kansas where the oil and gas industry and Kansas wildlife rub shoulders.

In an effort to protect wildlife habitat, public recreation areas and the remains of the Santa Fe Trail near the Cimarron River, the National Forest Service has proposed limits on some future oil and gas leases.If the rules are approved, new leases in sensitive areas wouldn't be allowed to have any surface fixtures, such as the beige-colored oil tanks, wellheads and pipelines that now dot the vast, grassy expanses.

There could be no drilling or other construction work on other designated new leases during such times as when elk are calving and prairie chickens are doing their mating dances, explained Gene Hennen, a wildlife specialist with the Forest Service from Pueblo, Colo.

Hunters, picnickers and bird-watchers probably wouldn't notice much of a change as they pursue their pastimes in the Grasslands, said Joe Hartman, chief forester at the Grasslands.

He thinks the proposed rules would help ensure that there would be a rich variety of wildlife to see along the river corridor.

Oil and gas production is big business for the Grasslands, where 425 oil and gas wells and as much as 450 miles of pipeline, none of which would be affected by the proposals, now produce about $7.5 million in revenue a year, said Mr. Hartman.

Representatives of the oil and gas industry recently met with Forest Service staff in Elkhart to discuss the proposed environmental impact statement, which took a year to draft.

Bob Tillman, a lease-acquisition specialist with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. in Liberal, Kan., said the rule changes probably wouldn't have much immediate effect on Anadarko, which operates about 150 wells on the federally controlled land.

"We only have three (new) wells proposed in the Grasslands this year," he said.

But Mr. Tillman said he was afraid current lease operators that try to improve existing leases might have to comply with the tougher rules being proposed.

Mr. Tillman also found fault with something the plan would allow: directional drilling. He said it isn't feasible in the Grasslands. In theory, surface disturbances can be limited if companies bore horizontally into a gas or oil deposit from an adjacent piece of land.

Dick Parmenter, a right-of-way specialist with Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Co. in Liberal, expressed concern that the rules might mean a pipeline company could be forced to run a new line 40 miles all the way around the Cimarron River rather than crossing under it.

But he was assured that the Forest Service would work with companies on a case-by-case basis, approving work that can done without risk to the environment.

Mr. Parmenter said he would like to see that spelled out in the final version of the environmental impact statement.

He and other interested parties, such as Steve Hayward, an Elkhart banker who someday would like to see the Santa Fe Trail transformed into a hiking path, have until May 1 to submit comments on the proposal.

The Cimarron National Grasslands plan, part of a larger proposal covering the Pike and San Isabel national forests and the Comanche National Grasslands in Colorado, could become a model for other Forest Service districts, said Mr. Hartman.