Pipeline battle brews in county

Wooden stakes marked with fluorescent orange surveyor’s tape snake up Fosset Gulch Road from Colo. 151. The stakes mark the route of a forthcoming gas pipeline, and foreshadow the arrival of one of the first major infrastructure projects as coal bed methane extraction kicks into high gear in the Archuleta County portion of the HD Mountains. Curiously, the stakes stop at a green locked gate across Fosset Gulch Road — one of two access points to the Candelaria Ranch and the start of trouble for Petrox Resources Inc. owner Mike Clark.

Petrox is one of the major players in the HD Mountains. With mineral leases scattered over a 12,000-acre federal unit and plans for about 25 well pads, Petrox, Exoc Inc. and the Fosset Gulch Pipeline Company intend to build a 16-inch pipeline in order to move the resource from their wells, and other wells farther south, into the Fosset Gulch line, and on to a much larger pipeline known as the San Brito System. The San Brito line will carry the methane to larger markets east and west and well beyond the borders of Archuleta County and the state of Colorado.

From a practical and logistical standpoint, the pipeline proposal appears straightforward. From the well pads, trunk lines will connect to the pipeline proper as it runs along Fosset Gulch Road. The placement of the pipeline next to the existing roadway and the pipeline construction specifics are detailed in, and mandated by, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) for the Northern San Juan Basin Coal Bed Methane Project.

The EIS — a weighty, three-volume document drafted to govern resource extraction and ancillary activities on federal land within the 125,000-acre project area — governs everything from pipeline construction to management of found cultural artifacts and raptor nests, while also dictating procedures and specifications for road construction and maintenance. Furthermore, and in addition to the ROD and EIS, all resource extraction activities are governed by a Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service permitting process.

For example, and according to Walt Brown, EIS team leader for the United States Forest Service, Clark’s pipeline requires two key permits — one for the pipeline design and another for Fosset Gulch Road reconstruction after the pipeline is complete. Brown said Petrox is very close to completing the design phase of the project.

Which leads Clark, Petrox, Exoc and the Fosset Gulch Pipeline Company back to the green gate.

The EIS and Record of Decision (ROD) govern all resource extraction and ancillary activities on land under federal jurisdiction. The land behind the gate however, is private property owned by the Candelaria family and administered by Annette and Leonard Candelaria.

Petrox has asked the Candelarias for an easement across their property to install the pipeline. The Candelarias denied the request by default — they did not respond to Petrox’s offer — and in turn the company filed for condemnation, arguing the 60-foot easement is the last piece of the puzzle needed to move gas from their leases and wells on and adjacent to the Candelaria property into their own line and on to the San Brito system.

“You can’t lease minerals and drill wells and then block access for the pipeline,” Clark said. “It’s not our style to do this (condemn property). This is not something Petrox has ever done in 35 years, and it is something that we don’t want to do,” Clark said.

To complicate matters, the Candelarias have gated Fosset Gulch Road, making it difficult for Clark to access his mineral leases on the Candelaria and adjacent property, and effectively prohibiting public travel on a road United States Forest Service staff say is an “open public road” that any citizen should be able to drive from it’s intersection with Colo. 151 to it’s intersection with U.S. 160.

Thus, the Candelarias are likely poised for two fights — one against the federal government regarding access and removal of the gate, the other against Petrox and the Fosset Gulch Pipeline Company and their motion to condemn the pipeline easement.

According to Cindy Hockelberg, a lands forester with the Columbine Ranger District of the United States Forest Service, the agency sent a letter to the Candelarias requesting they remove the gate. With the locked gate still blocking the road, however, Hockelberg said key personnel, including agency attorneys, will meet “to decide what steps we’ll take next.”

Although an administrative solution regarding the gate may keep the Candelarias out of a courtroom battle against the feds, the Candelarias will be in court Monday to fight condemnation.

While the two battles and two issues may appear separate, the gate has become a symbol of the Candelaria’s defiance and their demand for just treatment from the energy companies and local and federal governments, after what they say has been years of neglect when it comes to settling maintenance and repair issues on Fosset Gulch Road.

“We need to sit down with these people and come up with an agreement that is beneficial to all parties concerned. We want a written road maintenance agreement with legitimate negotiating and regulatory groups or agencies,” Annette Candelaria said. “If it is a public road, then someone, other than us, should maintain it,” she said.

According to Clark, Petrox has offered the Candelarias a road maintenance agreement, including winter snow removal, which he said Annette and Leonard Candelaria declined.

“We have very detailed road maintenance agreements, they’re in the ROD. We have agreements with the Southern Utes, we have detailed civil engineering plans. It will actually be a better road when we are done, and it will all be approved by the Forest Service and the BIA,” Clark said. “We have tried to be a good neighbor, but the Candelarias turned down our snow plowing agreement.”

(The Candelarias have countered that, for a number of reasons, Petrox isn’t a legitimate negotiating party.)

As a point of clarification, Steve Muns, manager of Fosset Gulch Pipeline Company said, “We are not claiming ownership of the road, but we are poised and prepared not to just maintain the road, but to rebuild the road. This is going to be a very good road, but it doesn’t make sense to do that road until the pipeline is in.”

With Petrox claiming good faith negotiations and the Candelarias crying foul, it is unclear whether the family are truly victims of a company “running roughshod” over private property owners, or whether the Candelarias simply want to keep their private property private, and oil and gas companies off their land.

“The Forest Service doesn’t have a valid easement across our property for oil and gas activity. The Forest Service can’t grant an easement across the property because they don’t have a valid easement themselves. The Forest Service built the road for timber access and you can’t conduct oil and gas operations on a timber deed,” said Annette Candelaria. “Fosset Gulch Road can’t be used for mineral development without our permission.”

What is clear, is that the Candelarias want someone or some agency to take care of the road.

“We gated the road because no one will maintain it,” Candelaria said.

That said, the Candelarias do not appear ready to grant permission until a “legitimate” negotiating party can provide a written, road maintenance and repair agreement.

In the end, however, access, repair, maintenance and pipeline location issues will likely be decided not by the Candelarias, but by a judge in a courtroom. And that is fine with Annette and Leonard Candelaria.

According to Annette, the courtroom may be the only place where grievances are aired in the open, data is examined and decisions are made through an objective and thoughtful process.

She and Leonard will have their day June 29.

james@pagosasun.com