Thompson Divide is out of sight of Aspen, but the threat of gas drilling in the vast, rugged area isn’t out of mind for Aspenites.
About 40 residents initially showed up for a meeting hosted Thursday at the Pitkin County Library by the Bureau of Land Management to talk about the fate of gas leases in and around the Thompson Divide area southwest of Carbondale. The number of attendees swelled to more than 60 later in the day when people got off work.
The BLM held the meeting as part of its environmental analysis on the fate of 65 parcels it leased to oil and gas companies between 1995 and 2004. A federal board ruled in 2007 that public land leased under similar circumstances didn’t go through a thorough environmental review. The environmental group Wilderness Workshop contends the parcels were leased illegally.
The BLM decided to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement to determine if the leases should be voided, modified or affirmed.
The message at Thursday’s meeting was unified for the cancellation of the leases. Of the 65 leases under review, 25 are in the Thompson Divide area.
Judy Fox-Perry, a rancher from the Carbondale area, summed up the thoughts of numerous speakers when she said that gas exploration poses too great of threat to ranching, hunting and recreation in Thompson Divide. The 220,000 acres of public lands stretch from Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass.
“Gas is not the enemy. Gas is essential to our lives,” Fox-Perry said. But it’s not appropriate to drill for gas in all places, she said, and Thompson Divide is one of the special places that should be off limits.
She also was one of several speakers who raised the alarm about the effects hydraulic fracturing would have on the pristine area and its water sources. Hydraulic fracturing uses chemicals that critics contend pose a threat to air and water quality.
“The Thompson Divide is basically a fracking virgin, so let’s protect her,” Fox-Perry said, drawing a chuckle from many in the crowd.
A more sobering moment came when Aaron Milton warned about the threat he sees from gas drilling and production releasing hydrocarbons in the air. It will affect the air quality throughout the Roaring Fork Valley when the producers “vent wells” in Thompson Divide, he claimed.
Milton said people would be exposed to those hydrocarbons, without their knowledge or consent, simply by walking down the street with their dog or children.
Milton said he previously worked in western Garfield County for a contractor for oil-and-gas industry giant Encana. He said he hasn’t seen a well where there wasn’t a spill.
Missy Pruden, of Woody Creek, said there have been a lot of changes to the Roaring Fork Valley since she first saw it as a five-year-old visiting from Denver, and after she moved to the Aspen area as a young adult. Gas drilling in Thompson Divide poses too great of a threat to the environment, she said.
Pruden contended that officially designated Roadless Areas such as Thompson Divide are intended to stay free of roads. For that reason, the leases should be voided, she said.
Wilderness Workshop and an allied advocacy group, Thompson Divide Coalition, as well as Pitkin County government also are pressing that point.
Will Roush, conservation director for Wilderness Workshop, told BLM officials at the meeting that the organization will submit detailed comments on the technical issues.
“Most of us aren’t here for technical reasons. We’re here for emotional reasons,” he said.
The BLM must consider its neighbors and the younger generations in its decision on whether or not to cancel the leases, Roush said. He contended that Roaring Fork Valley residents have never been so united and passionate about an issue as drilling in Thompson Divide.
Zane Kessler, executive director of Thompson Divide Coalition, said the land already provides an economic shot in the arm for the region in a sustainable way. Hunting, ranching and recreation directly tied to Thompson Divide creates 300 jobs and $30 million in business annually, according to a study performed by a neutral third party, Kessler said.
“Please consider an alternative that cancels the leases in Thompson Divide,” he said.
Speaker after speaker repeated the call to cancel the leases. The BLM held the same type of public comment meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday and in Carbondale on Wednesday. About 100 people attended the meeting in Glenwood Springs while 300 attended at Carbondale, estimated David Boyd, a spokesman for the agency. Most of the people that spoke at the meetings supported canceling the 65 leases, according to people that attended.
Boyd said the BLM has received 1,000 written comments on the lease status thus far. “The majority of those support canceling those leases,” he said.
Comments can be submitted through May 16. They can be emailed to WRNFleases@blm.gov.
The BLM will use the comments to create a draft Environmental Impact Statement that likely will be released in summer 2015, Boyd said. The public will have a chance to comment on that document.
While Thompson Divide is located roughly 30 miles from Aspen, the decision on leases will have a significant bearing on Pitkin County. At least 18 of the 65 leases in question are located at least partially in Pitkin County, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Chris Seldin told The Aspen Times. Most of the 18 are wholly contained within the northwest corner of Pitkin County.
The Pitkin County Commissioners unanimously support an alternative that voids leases in Thompson Divide.
“The Thompson Divide is basically a fracking virgin, so let’s protect her.”
Judy Fox-Perry, Carbondale-area rancher