County backs non-cancellation of leases | AspenTimes.com

County backs non-cancellation of leases

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

The Thompson Divide region encompasses the headwaters of Thompson, Divide and Four Mile creeks south of Glenwood Springs stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass.

Garfield County is taking the side of industry in its formal comments to the Bureau of Land Management as part of the federal agency's review of 65 existing oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest.

County commissioners, on a 2-1 vote Monday, backed one of the five alternatives being considered by the BLM that would not cancel any leases but modify eight leases that were deemed inconsistent with a 1993 U.S. Forest Service leasing plan.

"Garfield County remains concerned that an administrative error affecting a few leases is causing significant disruption to the orderly development of 65 existing leases," the county states in its letter to BLM Field Manager Karl Mendonca.

"Should adverse actions be taken to cancel leases or retroactively apply costly stipulations, property rights and longstanding investments to develop these and nearby leases … are at significant risk," says the county in backing Alternative 2 in the BLM's draft environmental impact statement reviewing leases issued under the 1993 leasing plan.

That alternative, also backed by the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and energy companies who hold the leases, addresses inconsistencies involving eight leases but allows all 65 leases to be developed without any new stipulations contained in the new forest leasing plan issued last year.

It also does not cancel any of the disputed leases in the Thompson Divide region southwest of Glenwood Springs, as preferred by advocacy groups such as the Thompson Divide Coalition, Wilderness Workshop and the vast majority of resident, recreation, conservation and ranching groups that weighed in on the plan.

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PROPERTY RIGHTS

Commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson said the county's comments are consistent with its position that the 1993 leasing plan was sufficient and that it would prefer the Thompson Divide Coalition and other groups work directly with lease holders to retire leases in Thompson Divide in a way that adequately compensates energy companies and serves the public interest.

"There is a personal property right associated with those leases," Jankovsky said. It's the same with any private entity holding a lease or permit for cattle grazing, recreation, logging or water rights, he said.

"That's all part of multiple use on our federal lands," Jankovsky said. "I think the federal government is wrong to say they can cancel leases."

He added, however, that the county's position is not likely to hold much weight when it comes to the final BLM decision.

"This decision is not going to happen on the local level. It's coming out of Washington, D.C.," Jankovsky said.

The county's comments do reiterate the commissioners' position that Four Mile Road is not to be considered as a haul route to access any leases that are developed, and that access should be from the Divide Creek side.

The BLM, in its draft environmental impact statement, is proposing Alternative 4, which would cancel 18 leases located in the Thompson Divide area altogether and partially cancel seven others.

It also would modify the remaining 40 leases stretching across a large swath of the White River National Forest, adding new lease stipulations contained in the updated oil and gas leasing plan put forth by Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams last year.

Among those stipulations is a provision for no surface occupancy and limits on new roads to access well sites.

County Commissioner John Martin has personally signed a letter put forth by the Thompson Divide Coalition backing that alternative as well as the BLM process to review the leases.

He voted against his fellow commissioners in submitting formal comments endorsing Alternative 2 specifically, and said the county's comments should be more general.

"I think we need to stay consistent with our constituents and to ourselves," he said, noting the county has long supported the Thompson Divide Coalition in its efforts to remove undeveloped leases.

"We're not required by this process to choose an alternative," Martin said.

'JUST CONFUSING'

Thompson Divide Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler and Will Roush, conservation director for Wilderness Workshop, agreed.

The county's comments "are very inconsistent with your scoping comments" and "chooses sides where it's not necessary to choose sides," Kessler said.

He noted that the county, in its initial comments to the BLM in spring 2014, when the lease review began, and in follow-up statements since then, has said the undeveloped Thompson Divide leases are unique and should be considered differently than the other 40 leases.

"Clearly, you have the ability not to choose one alternative over the other and still stick to your position," Kessler said.

Roush said it's appropriate for advocacy groups such as his, or industry groups like the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, to take a hard position, but not the county which represents broader constituency.

"For the county to choose an alternative is just confusing at this point," Roush said.

West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director David Ludlam applauded the county's endorsement of Alternative 2, calling it a "vindication of property rights."

"Alterative 2 more adequately addresses the valid lease rights of eight WSCOGA companies," Ludlam said in a statement. "An endorsement of Alternative 2 is a rejection of retroactively canceling or harming natural gas leases rights."

Energy companies and several Republican members of Congress from Colorado were recently denied a request to the BLM to extend the comment period on the draft environmental impact statement beyond the current Jan. 8 deadline.

"The BLM believes that the existing comment period, public meetings and other public processes have provided adequate time for meaningful public review and comment on the issues," Steven Ellis, deputy director of operations for the BLM in Washington, D.C., wrote in denying the requests.

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