Commissioners say to cancel leases in Thompson Divide | AspenTimes.com

Commissioners say to cancel leases in Thompson Divide

Pitkin County commissioners officially weighed in on the issue of Thompson Divide oil-and-gas leases last week with a 43-page letter outlining the reasons why the leases should be canceled.

The letter, dated Jan. 7, was sent to the Bureau of Land Management just a day before the end of a 49-day public-comment period on the agency's likely decision to wholly or partially cancel 25 oil-and-gas leases in the Thompson Divide area located in Pitkin and Garfield counties.

The BLM said in November it is leaning toward canceling 18 of those leases and partially canceling portions of seven others in the Thompson Divide because environmental analyses for them were inadequate. The determination on those 25 leases — owned by two energy companies called Ursa Resources and SG Interests — was cemented by the U.S. Forest Service's decision in 2014 to close the area to further oil and gas leasing.

Another 40 leases in the area — located outside Pitkin County in an area nearer to De Beque — would be modified to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas production.

Pitkin County's comments were limited to the 25 leases the BLM is looking at canceling or altering.

The letter, signed by then-Pitkin County Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Child, says the Thompson Divide area generates "some 300 jobs and $30 million in economic activity on a sustainable annual basis."

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"Oil and gas development in the divide would curtail or eliminate many of the ranching and recreational uses giving rise to those economic benefits," the letter states. "It would also introduce incompatible industrial activities into a recreational mecca, fragment some of the best big-game habitat in Colorado and threaten to pollute pristine watersheds with groundwater tables located just beneath the surface."

By contrast, the long-term return from 85 existing wells in the White River National Forest is 21 jobs and $1.27 million in labor income, according to the forest's 2014 Final Oil and Gas Leasing Environmental Impact Statement.

"While we understand that drilling and completion of wells also result in short-term bursts of economic activity, such jobs and revenue are not sustainable," Pitkin County's letter states. "When the drilling companies move on, they often leave unemployment and economic displacement in their wake."

The commissioners pointed out that Aspen and Pitkin County have built an economy based on a world-class resort that would be seriously impacted if oil and gas development "clogged our highways and polluted our air," the letter states.

"In a competitive international market, Colorado cannot be too careful about protecting the natural assets that attract our guests," the letter states.

The impact would be even worse near Carbondale and Redstone, where agricultural businesses could be impacted by water pollution, the letter says.

In addition, oil and gas production would cost the county millions in road maintenance, could adversely affect county-owned properties if industrial chemicals spill, might pollute air and block mountain views and hurt wildlife, the letter states.

The letter also quotes reports by petroleum engineers saying that the Thompson Divide cannot be profitably developed because it's too high and too remote. Further, it says that energy companies know this, which is why they did nothing with the leases for more than eight of the 10 years they owned them.

Essentially, impacts to air, water, groundwater, views, wildlife, the tourist economy and transportation would be detrimental if the BLM doesn't cancel the leases, the letter states.

The Thompson Divide stretches across 221,500 acres of federal land, from west of Carbondale to the Sunlight Ski Area near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass. It includes portions of Pitkin, Garfield, Gunnison, Mesa and Delta counties.

The BLM's final decision on the issue — the official environmental impact statement — is scheduled to be released in August.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

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