SILT, Colorado - An energy company has asked federal land managers to stop the clock before the expiration of the company's oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Carbondale.
The Bureau of Land Management office, 2300 River Frontage Road near Silt, announced on Thursday that SG Interests (SG) wants the BLM to "suspend" its 16 leases in Thompson Divide.
The Thompson Divide area covers 221,500 acres of federal land in Pitkin County (88,100 acres), Gunnison County (51,700 acres), Garfield County (43,500 acres), Mesa County (30,500 acres) and Delta County (7,700 acres). There currently are 61 leases in the area covering approximately 105,000 acres.
If granted by the BLM, suspension essentially puts a hold on pending expiration dates for the leases, which were originally acquired in 2003 with a 10-year term. The leases are due to expire in May and August of this year.
The cities of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, along with Pitkin County, have asked the BLM to take the unusual step of allowing a 30-day public comment period on SG's request.
Normally, according to BLM spokesman David Boyd, there is no public comment period for lease-suspension requests.
"The ultimate decision on suspensions should include robust dialogue on the best use of these lands. The Thompson Divide area is an important economic engine for our community and our valley," said Matt Steckler, mayor of Glenwood Springs.
"With so many questions regarding the impacts that drilling and extraction would have on the Four Mile Road corridor [the proposed haul route for industry traffic] and Glenwood Springs, we've asked the Bureau to allow for 30 days of public comment to ensure that all voices are heard," Steckler concluded.
Two organizations, the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) and Wilderness Workshop, have led a heated battle to prevent drilling in the area and are hoping the comment period will be allowed.
"No business would give this type of option away for free. Why should BLM and the taxpayers reward SG's delays?" asked Bill Fales, a TDC member and local rancher. "BLM should afford us the opportunity to provide official comment on any decision that could impact our water, or businesses or our livelihoods."
Fales referred to the TDC's argument that Thompson Divide is too important of a source of water, recreational opportunities, grazing for livestock and other economic activities to permit drilling to occur there.
In an application received by the BLM on Feb. 13, SG vice president Robbie Guinn noted that the company has been working since May 2011 to obtain the BLM's authorization to drill in the Thompson Divide area.
Those efforts included a request to have the 16 leases combined, or "unitized" into a proposed Lake Ridge Unit, which would have, in part, eliminated the expiration dates under certain circumstances.
The "unitization" request was not granted, though the BLM repeatedly indicated in 2012 that a decision on the unit would be forthcoming soon, Guinn noted in his suspension request.
So the company took a new approach.
Starting in October, SG filed applications for permits to drill (APDs) six individual wells in the Thompson Divide, with plans for more APDs in the future.
Those APDs currently are being reviewed for completeness, according to Boyd.
Once the applications are deemed complete, they will be subject to environmental assessments that could take up to two years, officials have said.
To avoid the expiration of the leases in the intervening period, the company has asked that the leases be put into "suspension."
In the meantime, Guinn wrote to the BLM, SG "agrees to enter into good faith negotiations with Pitkin County and the Thompson Divide Coalition," two entities that have been fighting against oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide.
But, Guinn concluded, the company "cannot guarantee a successful outcome and does not agree that the term of the suspension be determined by the success or failure of such discussions."