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March 23, 2013
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Sen. Bennet introduces Thompson Divide bill

ASPEN - U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, offering what the congressman's office termed a "middle-ground solution" to the hotly contested prospect of future gas drilling on the public lands southwest of Carbondale.The bill would withdraw unleased minerals in the 221,000-acre area from future oil-and-gas development while also preserving existing property rights for current leaseholders. It also creates an opportunity for existing leases to be retired should they be donated or sold by willing owners. There are currently 61 active claims spotted around roughly 105,000 acres of Thompson Divide; 23 undeveloped leases are scheduled to expire this year. Bennet, D-Colo., drafted his bill at the urging of local governments and with input from leaseholders and others with an interest in the fate of Thompson Divide. He released it for public comment in August, and it drew "overwhelming" support during a four-month period. Nearly 700 people filed comments, and 99 percent supported the measure, the senator's office said. Fewer than 1 percent said oil-and-gas development or leasing should continue in the area."This bill to manage the pristine Thompson Divide area reflects the voices of stakeholders and Coloradans in the surrounding communities who live, work and recreate in the area and rely on it for their livelihoods," Bennet said in a prepared statement. "After receiving overwhelming support for the bill, it's clear that it represents a popular approach that protects the land - and the local economies tied to it - from future energy development, while also acknowledging and respecting the rights of current leaseholders."Local conservationists and others praised Bennet's bill Friday, particularly for the message they hope it sends to the Bureau of Land Management. That agency will decide whether to grant suspension requests from energy companies to extend the life of leases that otherwise would expire this year - some as soon as May."Hopefully, with all the other comments the BLM has been getting, they're looking seriously at not granting those suspension requests," Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said. "The timing of this I think is great ... to let the BLM know there is broad support for this.""The legislation is obviously important," said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has proposed a $2.5 million settlement to various companies that hold leases in Thompson Divide, should federal legislation be enacted to protect the area and the leases be retired. "I think it sends a message to our federal land-management agencies," he said.The coalition's offer, Kessler said, remains on the table even as the group pushes for expiration of the 23 leases that are running out of time for development.The Thompson Divide Coalition, representing a coalition of area ranchers, business owners and recreationists, claims support from more than 3,000 individual members. In a blast email Friday, it encouraged its supporters to sign an online letter thanking Bennet for his leadership and willingness to engage the various factions that have an interest in Thompson Divide.Not everyone, however, was pleased with Bennet's bill. The West Slope Oil & Gas Association has worked well with the congressman on various issues, said its executive director, David Ludlam, but the group doesn't advocate placing the Divide off limits to drilling."There are certain areas where we're going to disagree, and that's fine. The Thompson Divide is probably one of them," Ludlam said. "We maintain that when energy development is done right, thoughtfully and progressively, it can exist with other uses."Pitkin County has helped lead the charge against further drilling activity in Thompson Divide, but the large homes in the upper Roaring Fork Valley use more than twice as much natural gas as the average Colorado residence, according to Ludlam."I find that to be intellectually problematic," he said. "It's not a sustainable way of thinking."janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 23, 2013 08:49AM Published Mar 23, 2013 12:58AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.