CARBONDALE - The Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday approved suspension requests from SG Interests and Ursa Resources Group that keep natural-gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale alive for at least another year.
The move was met with a mixed reaction from those with a stake in the fight over future drilling activity in the scenic area. Not unsurprisingly, representatives of SG and Ursa expressed support for the reprieve given to leases that were poised to expire, while conservationists were disappointed with the BLM's decision.
The suspension prevents development activity on 25 leases, pauses the 10-year deadline the energy companies have to develop the holdings and allows for a full-blown environmental analysis, including formal public comment, which should have taken place when the leases were let, the BLM said.
Twenty-three undeveloped leases were scheduled to expire this year, some as early as May. The suspensions are effective Feb. 1 - the date the companies submitted their suspension requests to the BLM - and expire on April 1, 2014.
The suspensions will give the BLM time to conduct an environmental analysis of the leases under the National Environmental Policy Act that, the agency acknowledged, should have occurred when the leases were sold, in 2003 and 2004. It's the BLM's intent to have the analysis complete by April 2014, spokesman David Boyd said.
Ultimately, the leases could be voided, reaffirmed or modified as a result of the additional environmental assessment, the BLM said in a statement Tuesday.
Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation group, blasted the decision as bailing out the energy-development industry rather than letting undeveloped leases that were sold illegally in the first place expire on schedule.
"We are extremely disappointed in the BLM. This was a no-brainer. BLM should have held the companies to their lease contracts and let these leases expire. Instead, the agency disregarded the will of the public and the terms that the companies themselves agreed to in buying the leases," said Sloan Shoemaker, Wilderness Workshop executive director, in a prepared statement.
The organization is considering its legal options in consultation with Earthjustice, a national, nonprofit, environmental law firm, Shoemaker said.
The BLM's decision is open to appeal, and that step is being considered, according to Michael Freeman, Earthjustice staff attorney.
There has been no diligent effort by the companies to develop the leases - activity that would make extension of the leases appropriate under BLM rules, he said.
The Thompson Divide Coalition, representing ranchers, business owners and those with recreation interests in the Divide, issued a statement expressing its disappointment in the BLM for ignoring the public's desire to see the leases expire, but the coalition embraced an environmental analysis that will allow formal public input and could lead the agency to void the leases.
The coalition remains committed to buying out undeveloped leases in Thompson Divide, according to Zane Kessler, its executive director. He expressed hope that the BLM's decision will move that effort forward.
"It sets what we believe to be a firm deadline and a timeline within which the coalition and the industry can work together to achieve a market-based solution," he said. "We're confident the BLM is working to help us get there."
Pitkin County was gratified to see the BLM admit that the leases are illegal and is glad the public will have a chance to weigh in, said assistant county attorney Chris Seldin.
"But," he added, "none of this would be necessary if BLM just stood behind the community and let these leases expire. Instead, the threat of development continues. I'd say this fight is far from over."
Ellynne Bannon, Western energy lands program manager for watchdog group The Checks and Balances Project, issued a statement blasting Colorado BLM Director Helen Hankins for "showing what a great real estate agent she is for oil and gas companies."
Hankins is "ignoring the will of the communities around Thompson Divide and putting drinking water, farming and ranching businesses at risk in order to provide another freebie to oil and gas companies," Bannon said.
Don Simpson, a spokesman for Ursa Resources, called the BLM's decision "fair." Robert Guinn II, vice president of land for SG Interests, said in a statement that the company is pleased the BLM recognized the suspensions were appropriate because the leases were issued without the required environmental review - a procedural lapse that was not the company's fault.
Both companies acknowledged the potential for a negotiated coalition buyout of the leases, a move that could involve state funds, as well, according to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who discussed Thompson Divide during a recent area visit.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who last month introduced a bill that would withdraw unleased lands in Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development but preserve existing leases while allowing them to be retired through sale or donation, also issued a statement in response to the BLM's decision.
"While I know many communities in the Thompson Divide area had hoped the leases would expire this May, I am pleased to see that BLM has recognized the importance of the ongoing community dialogue over future development," the senator said.
The Thompson Divide area covers 221,500 acres of federal land in Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties. There are currently 61 active claims covering approximately 105,000 acres.