Pitkin County, the town of Carbondale and the city of Glenwood Springs will jointly file a letter of comments this week concerning the Bureau of Land Management’s review of previously issued oil and gas leases in the White River National Forest, including the Thompson Divide area.
The comments received unanimous approval at the county commissioner’s work session Tuesday from the four commissioners present. Commissioner Michael Owsley was not available for the meeting.
The letter was presented to the Carbondale Board of Trustees for approval Tuesday evening and will go before the Glenwood Springs City Council on Thursday evening before being sent to the BLM.
The lease review was prompted by an Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling that stems from the 2007 Pitkin County challenge to three Thompson Divide leases that it argued were issued illegally.
The Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled that the BLM must either do its own environmental analysis or formally adopt the White River National Forest’s 1993 oil-and-gas environmental-impact statement for leasing in the White River National Forest.
The original 1993 leasing analysis was ruled illegal because the BLM never adopted the environmental-impact statement or conducted its own analysis, which it was required to do.
The BLM is now preparing to conduct its own environmental analysis on 65 leases issued since the 1993 statement to determine whether the leases should be voided, reaffirmed, modified with additional or different terms, or subject to additional mitigation measures for site-specific development proposals.
Before the BLM begins drafting the new environmental-impact statement, it’s procuring comments from the public about what issues and concerns people would like to see addressed, called scoping. Public scoping began last month and runs through Friday.
A draft environmental-impact statement will be released for public comment once draft alternatives are complete, currently anticipated for the summer of 2015. A final statement is anticipated in the summer of 2016.
“What we hoped is that by bringing the matter to the BLM’s attention, the agency would act to correct its 2003 leasing error,” said Chris Seldin, an assistant Pitkin County attorney. “They’ve done that, and we’re very gratified they have.”
The BLM said it would consider all the environmental and socioeconomic concerns surrounding the area for both Pitkin and Garfield counties, including water and air quality, recreational opportunities, jobs and wildlife impacts.
“A recent study demonstrates that activities centered on the Thompson Divide generate some $30 million in economic activity annually and support nearly 300 jobs statewide,” Seldin said. “There are also issues with concern to how oil and gas operations affect the groundwater that both Carbondale and Glenwood Springs draws from, the surrounding air quality and the local wildlife populations.”
If the leases are canceled by the BLM, it will bring out an interesting distinction that exists in the federal government of who manages oil and gas development within national forests.
The U.S. Forest Service has jurisdiction over the surface of the land, while the BLM has jurisdiction concerning the minerals underneath the surface of the land. That creates a system where both agencies play a role in oil and gas leasing within a national forest.
According to Seldin, if BLM starts from scratch, it will have to get permission from the Forest Service before it can issue an oil-and-gas lease.
“If the BLM were to cancel the existing leases in the divide, the lands would then be available for future leasing in a way that would have to be consistent with the Forest Service’s decision on an upcoming analysis that is scheduled to be released this summer,” he said. “The Forest Service launched its own process concerning oil and gas leasing on the White River National Forest several years ago and issued a draft of an (environmental-impact statement) in the fall of 2012. We have reason to believe that a final (statement) will be released by the Forest Service this summer. That decision will determine what happens on the land going forward. (Pitkin County) urged the Forest Service to close the Thompson Divide area of Pitkin County to future leasing.”
If the Forest Service does close Thompson Divide to future leasing and the BLM cancels the current leases, Thompson Divide will be protected from oil and gas development for the life of that Forest Service plan, which would likely run about 20 years.
Longer protection would require an act of Congress.
The BLM has made clear that any operators whose leases are canceled will receive a full refund of money paid. Those refunds would exceed the fair market value of those leases because they cannot be profitably developed in light of current market conditions for natural gas.
Any claims by operators that their leases may be worth more in the future is nothing more than speculation, which is forbidden by the Mineral Leasing Act and presidential policy, Seldin said.
Seldin made a point at the meeting to show that it isn’t unprecedented for the BLM to cancel leases it deems illegal.
Some of the scoping comments urge the BLM to cancel the 25 Thompson Divide leases. Canceling the leases would be consistent with BLM’s past approach to illegal leases in Thompson Divide.
In 2009, it canceled the three leases that were at issue in the 2007 challenge led by Pitkin County. In 2010, it partially canceled an additional four leases that were issued illegally in the same lands occupied by Sunlight Ski Area.
Federal law directly prohibits leasing within ski areas, but that provision of federal law was not observed when the lands were leased in 2003.
“The public has been the real leader of this effort,” Seldin said. “It’s the public that turned out in the hundreds to tell BLM that this is not the right place for oil and gas development to take place.”