CARBONDALE - Approximately 125 people attended a meeting here Monday called by the Thompson Divide Coalition in its ongoing campaign to prevent gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale.
It was the first of four meetings called in response to news that gas-drilling company SG Interests has changed tactics and is now seeking permits to move forward with gas drilling in Thompson Divide.
The coalition has offered to pay a total of $2.5 million to buy out gas leases held by SG Interests and seven other energy companies in the area.
But in a statement issued Tuesday, SG Interests Vice President Robbie Guinn said the company broke off negotiations with the coalition in April, rejecting the offer as inadequate, uncertain and contrary to the company's intent to develop the leases.
"This is about how this (resource) is going to be developed, not whether it is going to be developed," Guinn said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He noted that he remains in contact with the coalition and that SG Interests "welcomes constructive ideas on how best to develop these federal resources."
The Thompson Divide Coalition and its supporters argue, however, that the area's grazing, recreation, wildlife and watershed values are at least as important as the potential for oil and gas production.
"A good part of our focus is that this area is inappropriate for any exploration because of the other uses that we have," said Dorothea Farris, of Carbondale, a board member of coalition, during the Monday meeting.
Zane Kessler, the coalition's new executive director, pointed out that SG Interests has not actually filed formal applications for permits to drill.
"The sky is not falling," he said. "We have time on our side. We have communities on our side."
Kessler and other speakers exhorted attendees to step up their involvement with the coalition's mission.
He called on people to write letters to local, state and federal government officials; work phone banks to contact other residents; and take part in door-to-door canvassing.
Kessler described Thompson Divide, a largely roadless area of about 221,000 acres stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass and from the Crystal River west to Divide Creek, as "the best buffer ... between our communities and the millions and millions of developed acres to the west of us."
"It's pristine, including several virgin waterways, and it's got to be protected," Kessler added.
At the meeting, Thompson Divide Coalition representatives renewed the offer of $2.5 million to keep drillers out of the Thompson Divide area and pledged to step up the work to protect the region from energy development.
"Thompson Divide Coalition's business is to make the leaseholders whole," said coalition board member Jock Jacober, of Glenwood Springs. He said the $2.5 million is based on the coalition's research into what the companies paid to the government in initial lease payments and rents.
Guinn, however, said the $577,838 offered to SG Interests "does not recognize the significant expenditures that SG has made in these leases in addition to the bonus bid and rentals."
Moreover, time is running out for the leases.
SG Interests and neighboring gas developers with leases in the area applied to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last year for a "unitization" order to establish what would be known as the Lake Ridge Unit.
Creation of the unit would lump together 18 SG Interests leases in Thompson Divide, amounting to 32,000 acres of land, and give the company more time to work on its development plans.
If not unitized, most of SG Interest's leases will expire in 2013, according to Peter Hart, staff attorney for The Wilderness Workshop, another local conservation group active in Thompson Divide issues.
But BLM officials have not approved or denied the Lake Ridge Unit request. During the week of July 9, SG Interests informed BLM that it would seek specific permits to drill on Thompson Divide leases rather than wait for unitization.
Guinn confirmed that the change of plan was prompted by the expiration dates.
"We're basically running out of time if we don't move forward with the individual (applications for permits to drill)," Guinn said.
The coalition held a similar meeting in Redstone Tuesday. A meeting is planned Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Glenwood Springs Community Center and Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Aspen High School seminar room.