Trump election spurs Thompsom Divide lawsuit
April 20, 2017
Questions about whether the Trump administration will defend a recent decision canceling oil and gas leases in Thompson Divide led Pitkin County and a local nonprofit to sue the federal government Wednesday, officials said.
The lawsuit, filed by the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, essentially is an insurance policy in case a judge decides to overturn the Bureau of Land Management's November decision canceling 25 oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide, said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney.
A judge might make that decision because SG Interests, a Houston-based oil company that owns 18 of the 25 canceled leases, filed suit in February challenging the BLM's cancellation decision, he said.
If that happens, Wednesday's lawsuit rekindles an argument the county made before the lease cancellation that the BLM should not have extended the oil leases in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and should have allowed them to expire after 10 years in 2013, Ely said.
The lawsuit also challenges a decision by the Department of the Interior dismissing appeals of those BLM lease extensions filed by Pitkin County and Wilderness Workshop, the lawsuit states.
"We're covering all our bases," said Peter Hart, Wilderness Workshop's attorney. "It's sort of an insurance policy."
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Ely said the county initially planned to intervene in the SG lawsuit and help the Department of Justice defend the BLM's cancellation decision. Then Donald Trump was elected president.
"Now all bets are off," Ely said. "They might not even want to defend the (cancellation decision). I remember thinking on election night, 'I wonder if they'll bail on this.'
"It's like the ground shifted underneath us."
Michael Freeman, an attorney with Earth Justice in Denver who represents Wilderness Workshop in Wednesday's lawsuit, said while he believes SG's lawsuit is meritless, the Trump administration is a concern. In fact, when SG filed the lawsuit in February, the company in a statement expressed hope that the new administration would support it, Freeman said.
"This administration has already announced plans to reverse several oil and gas restrictions," Freeman said.
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.
Freeman and Hart emphasized that the Thompson Divide is far more valuable as undeveloped land than it is as an oil exploration area. Pitkin County commissioners have made the same point, saying that oil and gas production would ruin roads, air and water quality, and mountain views, as well as hurt wildlife.
"That's the reason we've been fighting about this for over a decade," Hart said. "People really care about it."
All 25 leases canceled by the BLM in November were in Pitkin County or partially in Pitkin County. The oil company that owned seven of the leases has not filed a lawsuit challenging the cancellation and has already gone through a reconciliation process with the federal government about those leases, Ely said.
Wednesday's lawsuit, filed in federal court in Colorado, names the BLM and Department of Interior as defendants. Ely said he expects the lawsuit to be joined with SG's lawsuit and that the cases will be overseen by the same judge.
SG wants the judge to find the lease cancellation illegal and reinstate the leases, according to that lawsuit. After the cancellation decision in November, an SG representative called the action "taking of private property rights and/or a breach of the lease contracts."
The lawsuit is still in its early stages, and the federal government has yet to file a response to it, according to the online federal court filing system.