ASPEN - Pitkin County is urging the U.S. Forest Service to close off the Thompson Divide area of the White River National Forest to future leasing by oil- and gas-drilling companies and to allow existing leases within the county to expire without extension.
The county's input comes in a 29-page letter, its comments to the White River National Forest Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The comment period ended Nov. 30. Assistant county attorney Chris Seldin drafted the county's response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which outlines four alternative oil- and gas-drilling scenarios for the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest. The county's comments focus on the portion of the national forest within Pitkin County, particularly the Thompson Divide area bordering the Crystal River Valley, where local oil- and gas-drilling interests are centered.
The county's comments take issue with all four alternatives under consideration.
"We kind of thought there were flaws in all of them," said County Commissioner George Newman. "We believe there should not be any future oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area."
Thompson Divide is 221,500 acres of land stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass and from just west of the Crystal River over to Divide Creek. New proposals to drill wells there have surfaced recently.
The county rejects the White River's Alternative A - a do-nothing option that sticks with the agency's existing oil and gas regulations - calling them out of date and inadequate to evaluate oil and gas drilling in the national forest.
In addition, the county's comments outline inconsistencies in the assumptions built into Alternatives B, C and D and call for a new draft that "compares, in an unbiased way, future development against the absence of future development."
In its comments, the county advocates a melding of the no-new-leasing assumption of Alternative B with the no-development-of-existing-leases assumption of Alternatives C and D. The vast majority of existing leases in Thompson Divide were issued illegally, the county's letter asserts.
Much of the county's letter focuses on the various potential effects of oil- and gas-drilling activity within its borders, focusing on impacts to roads, air quality, wildlife, ranching and the county's tourist-driven economy. The county's investment in protecting open space in the Crystal River drainage totals $27 million, the letter also notes.
"Should visitors begin to go elsewhere because oil and gas development has clogged our highways and polluted our air, the impact on Pitkin County's finances will be direct and serious," the letter reads. "Colorado cannot be too careful about protecting the natural assets that attract our guests."
The county also acknowledges that the royalties it could expect to receive from oil and gas drilling would be close to zero, based on the representations in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Job generation would come in boom-bust cycles that the county would prefer to avoid in favor of a more sustainable economy, its letter reads.
The White River National Forest itself has estimated the significance of drilling on the forest as so small that it will have no effect on the overall oil and gas industry, the letter further notes. The impact of closing Thompson Divide to future leasing will be "vanishingly small," according to the county.
"The county does not believe that such a small fraction of available local gas resource justifies placing at risk large areas of pristine habitat upon which significant measures of the local economy so deeply depend," the county's letter reads. "Colorado requires a diverse economy for its present and future success.
"There is no need to place successful existing economies at risk for such a trivial fraction of even the local - let alone state or national - oil and gas resource."