Carbondale-based public lands watchdog Wilderness Workshop warned members Wednesday that recent decisions by two federal agencies advanced the possibility of natural gas drilling in a portion of Thompson Divide.
The Bureau of Land Management extended the deadline for a decision on a gas company’s application to drill at two sites — one northwest of McClure Pass at Huntsman Ridge and another west of Paonia Reservoir, according to Wilderness Workshop. A company called SG Interests applied to drill shortly before its leases at the two sites were going to expire. The BLM’s decision extends the suspensions of those leases, according to Wilderness Workshop attorney Peter Hart.
He said the BLM’s rationale was that the leases have been reviewed in a “roadless consultation,” apparently by the regional office of the U.S. Forest Service.
“What that means, as best as we can tell, is that the feds have concluded that roadless protections don’t apply to these leases, and with that pesky objection out of the way, SG’s drilling applications are now cleared for normal review,” Hart wrote in an email delivered Wednesday afternoon to Wilderness Workshop members.
Messages from The Aspen Times to media contacts in the BLM’s Montrose Field Office and state office weren’t immediately returned Wednesday.
In an interview, Hart said the decision “is a little confounding.” It “suggests” that the regional office of the Forest Service believes the leases could be approved, he said. But one lease is in the Huntsman Ridge Roadless Area, while the other is in the Pilot Knob Roadless Area, according to Hart. Federal law doesn’t allow timber cutting and road building allowed in federally inventoried roadless areas, he said.
The proposed drill site on Huntsman Ridge is within the Thompson Divide area, a vast swath of land from near Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass, west of Highway 133. Groups centered in Carbondale are trying to protect that area from gas drilling.
The drill sites on Huntsman Ridge and near Paonia Reservoir are in Gunnison County, Hart said, and in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. Other proposed drill sites in Thompson Divide are in Pitkin, Garfield and Mesas counties within the White River National Forest. Reviews of drill applications on those leases are being handled separately.
Hart said Wilderness Workshop is weighing its options on the two latest reviews to be cleared by the BLM. “We’re going to argue that the Forest Service should undertake a full (Environmental Impact Statement) on this,” he said, referring to the most thorough federal review process.
Wilderness Workshop will consider trying to block the review. “We may have to challenge this decision through an appeal or lawsuit,” Hart’s email to Wilderness Workshop members said.
“What that means, as best as we can tell, is that the feds have concluded that roadless protections don’t apply to these leases, and with that pesky objection out of the way, SG’s drilling applications are now cleared for normal review.”
Wilderness Workshop attorney