Appeals filed over Thompson Divide plan

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
This photo submitted as part of an application by SG Interests shows the area where it has proposed to drill a natural gas well near Four Mile Park southwest of Glenwood Springs.

Wilderness Workshop and three local governments filed administrative appeals Monday that could potentially set up a courtroom showdown with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over drilling for natural gas in Thompson Divide.

Wilderness Workshop’s appeal asked the state director of the BLM to overturn a decision by the Colorado River Valley Field Office to “suspend” 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area, southwest of Carbondale.

Pitkin County, the town of Carbondale and city of Glenwood Springs joined forces to file a separate appeal.

The suspension allows two gas companies to hold on to their leases for at least another year and could ultimately lead to development of the leases. The 25 leases held by SG Interests and Ursa Resource Group were scheduled to expire this month. Leases of public lands for gas development usually expire after 10 years if no work is undertaken.

“The field office decision has some pretty big legal flaws in it.”
Michael Freeman
Earthjustice attorney

The BLM said at the time of the April 9 decision that the suspension “pauses” the 10-year deadline and “allows for additional public input and environmental analysis” on the company’s development proposals. The suspensions were deemed effective Feb. 1 and will expire April 1.

Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop contends there were no grounds for suspending the leases.

“The field office decision has some pretty big legal flaws in it,” said Michael Freeman, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation for conservation groups.

The appeal was made on three grounds: First, Wilderness Workshop said the suspension was improperly granted based on the “totality of circumstances” but the circumstances themselves would justify allowing them to expire; second, the leasing of the lands 10 years ago was illegal because they are in roadless areas; and third, the suspensions were made without the federal government reserving the right to deny all drilling on the leases.

The appeal by the governments said Glenwood Springs and Carbondale are “gateway communities” to Thompson Divide. Their economies are heavily dependent on tourism, which will be adversely affected by gas exploration and development.

“SG Interests proposes to access and develop its leases in the Thompson Divide along a route that travels through the heart of Glenwood Springs,” the governments’ appeal said. “This sort of industrial traffic would introduce significant public safety, environmental (air, water and noise pollution) and roadway infrastructure impacts to the City.”

The appeal went on to say that Glenwood Springs residents “have voiced strong opposition to oil and gas development in Thompson Divide.”

The Colorado River Valley Field Office will have 10 days to respond to the BLM state director as part of the review of the appeal, BLM spokesman David Boyd said. The field office will respond to the allegations in the appeals via that process, he said.

If the state office upholds the suspensions, Wilderness Workshop and the three governments can either file another administrative appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals or file a lawsuit in federal court, depending on legalities of the state office’s decision, Freeman said. If appeals are denied, the path leads to litigation.

Complex legal maneuvering aside, the battle is over how gas drilling would affect 200,000 acres of federal land that provide excellent, mid-elevation wildlife habitat, grazing lands for several ranchers and roadless backcountry territory. The 25 leases, 18 of which are held by SG Interests, cover roughly 31,700 acres.

“The bottom line for us is Thompson Divide is an extraordinary place that deserves protection,” Freeman said.

Representatives of Ursa and SG Interests contended in a community forum in February that they would responsibly drill in Thompson Divide to extract needed gas and still protect natural resources. An SG Interests spokesman didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday.

Wilderness Workshop issued a news release Monday alleging that drilling in Thompson Divide will ruin the area. “If these leases were drilled, the chemical spills, air and water pollution and industrialization from oil and gas development that have scarred much of western Colorado over the last decade would spill into the heart of the Thompson Divide,” the statement said.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, a citizens’ group opposed to drilling, didn’t file an administrative appeal of the BLM ruling. The group is negotiating with the oil and gas companies to try to buy out or otherwise extinguish the leases.

Wilderness Workshop’s appeal suggested the policies of the Obama administration are on its side in the dispute over the leases. It cited the president describing a “use it or lose it policy” during the 2012 campaign debates. Obama said public lands are meant to be leased for diligent exploration and development — not for a company to sit on for an undetermined amount of time until gas prices are more favorable.

Wilderness Workshop contends Ursa and SG Interests showed no interest in developing their Thompson Divide leases in the mid-2000s, when gas prices were high. It only showed interest in the past few months, despite low prices, when they were at risk of losing the leases.

The governments of Pitkin County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs also questioned the gas company’s motives in seeking an 11th-hour suspension of the leases. They hired two experts in the petroleum industry to review the geology of Thompson Divide, the physical barriers to drilling, the state of the gas prices over the last decade and other factors. They reached the conclusion the gas companies were interested in “extending the subject leases beyond their primary terms until a future point in time when gas prices rise sufficiently or other factors make exploration and development of this area economically advantageous.”