CARBONDALE - From the CEO of Patagonia Inc. to a student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School and from ranchers to a bike-shop owner, hundreds of Carbondale-area residents spoke in a unified voice Wednesday night against gas drilling in Thompson Divide.
The crowd spilled out of Carbondale Town Hall for a chance to speak and show its support to keep roughly 250,000 acres of public lands pristine from Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass west of Highway 133 and the Crystal River. The Pitkin County commissioners organized the meeting to give residents a chance to speak on efforts by two oil and gas companies to extend their leases in Thompson Divide. Numerous leases held by SG Interests and Ursa Piceance LLC are set to expire in May. The companies have applied to the Bureau of Land Management to "suspend" or cancel the expirations so they can hold the leases longer than the 10-year term.
But scores of speakers and a crowd that appeared to exceed 300 people vowed to lobby the federal agency to let the leases expire. The meeting solidified support for the Thompson Divide Coalition, a nonprofit group fighting to prevent drilling. The coalition last year offered to buy out the gas companies for the amount they publicly had sunk into the leases. The companies haven't responded with counteroffers.
Jock Jacober, a rancher and member of the Thompson Divide Coalition's board of directors, stirred the crowd by vowing that the leases won't be allowed to be renewed.
"They're either over or we make a deal," he said. The gas companies have three months to come to the bargaining table, Jacober stressed.
CRMS student Lea Linse brought most audience members to their feet with an eloquent speech on why she is concerned about what could happen to Thompson Divide. She framed the problem precisely: Everyone uses natural gas and must support, at some level, energy development, but some places must be off limits from our country's appetite for fossil fuels. Linse said she is concerned about the devastating ecological effects drilling in Thompson Divide would have as well as the impacts on recreation and ranching.
The real test in the debate, she said, is whether decision-makers will listen to the people who live in the area and will be affected the most.
"This isn't the place to (drill)," Linse said, to widespread cheering, at the end of her comments. "The community here has made this point."
Casey Sheahan, who said he commutes between his family's home in Carbondale and his job in California as CEO of Patagonia Inc., stirred the crowd with his blunt assessment of the situation.
"If you live in Pitkin County, the wolf is right at your door," Sheahan said of oil and gas development. And if you live in Garfield County, he said, the wolf already has consumed about half the county.
The degradation of water and air quality, the increased truck traffic and other impacts are severe threats to what his family considers "one of the last great places," he said.
The crowd gave a resounding "no" when Sheahan asked if it was worth "poisoning the earth" to extract more natural gas to feed the country's addiction to fossil fuels. He urged the audience not to rely on Gov. John Hickenlooper or state and federal bureaucracies to help prevent drilling. Winning the battle will require "civil democracy" aimed at representatives in Washington, D.C., Sheahan said.
Representatives of the remaining ranching families in the Carbondale area gave simple, direct assessments of what gas drilling in Thompson Divide will bring. Gas-well pads developed five decades ago and the roads accessing them still leave deep scars on the land even though the wells have been capped and the areas aren't in use, said Bill Fales, who ranches south of Carbondale and grazes cattle in Thompson Divide.
Remaining wells in Thompson Divide are injected with natural gas produced farther west during warm-weather months, and that product is delivered to Roaring Fork Valley residences and businesses during winters. The swath originally cut for the pipeline to the valley floor is among the most weed-infested land in the Thompson Divide area, Fales said.
"There are problems with oil and gas," he said.
Marty Nieslanik, part of a family that's ranched for multiple generations and a spokesman for the North Thompson Cattlemen's Association, said there likely won't be future generations of Carbondale-area ranchers if drilling proceeds in Thompson Divide. The association leases public lands there for cattle grazing.
"It will drive the wildlife out and kill the cattle industry," Nieslanik said.
Many local elected officials, recreational users of Thompson Divide and representatives of sportsmen's groups and conservationists spoke out against drilling. During the first hour of public comment, no one from the audience spoke in favor of drilling.
Representatives of SG Interests and Ursa Piceance spoke as part of a panel discussion to start the gathering. Don Simpson, of Ursa, said his company, which recently bought the leases of another firm, wants to do whatever is necessary to proceed with plans to develop in a "responsible manner."
Eric Sanford, of SG Interests, urged the audience to "be objective" in its assessment of the drilling plans. His firm's work wouldn't affect 250,000 acres, he said. As many as four wells would be drilled from individual pads, limiting the effects, he said. The company's proposed activity would affect no more than 20,000 acres, all of which is outside mapped roadless lands, according to Sanford.
"Oil and gas can be responsibly developed, and it is responsibly developed," Sanford said.
But the night was dominated by unified audience sentiment against drilling. The BLM hasn't decided whether to extend the gas leases, which typically expire after 10 years if there has been no development activity.
George Newman, chairman of the Pitkin County commissioners, urged the audience to voice its opinions to the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and elected officials.
"The ultimate decision will be made from Washington, D.C.," Newman said.