BLM: Cancel Thompson Divide gas leases | AspenTimes.com

BLM: Cancel Thompson Divide gas 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.

Eighteen oil and gas leases and parts of seven others in the Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs would be canceled under a much-anticipated draft environmental analysis of 65 existing leases on the White River National Forest that was released by the Bureau of Land Management this morning.

The BLM's Draft Environmental Impact Statement is now open for a 49-day public comment period that begins Friday and continues until Jan. 8. The EIS presents five alternatives for the public to comment on, ranging from no changes to the 65 existing leases to canceling them entirely.

The BLM's proposed action (Alternative 4) tracks a decision earlier this year by White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams regarding areas of the forest that will be open or closed to gas leasing over the next 20 years. The leasing management plan closed the Thompson Divide area to future leasing during that period of time.

The BLM action would cancel all or part of 25 existing leases in that area. Those leases had been set to expire in recent years before the agency decided in 2014 to review them in order to address deficiencies in the original analysis that were identified by the Interior Board of Land Appeals in 2007.

The other 40 leases, located to the west of the Thompson Divide in an area of the forest straddling the Garfield and Mesa county line that already has substantial oil and gas development, would be allowed to continue under the latest plan.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been working for several years to prevent drilling in the roughly 221,000-acre area stretching from Four Mile Park south of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass south of Carbondale, praised the BLM's proposed decision.

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"We applaud the BLM for proposing a middle-ground approach that protects the Thompson Divide while upholding more prospective leases in the center of the Piceance Basin." Zane Kessler, Executive Director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, said. "In the months to come, we will continue to encourage the BLM to stand up for our local economies and the for the men and women who rely on these lands for their livelihoods."

Another Carbondale-based group that has been active on Thompson Divide issues, the Wilderness Workshop, said it was also still reviewing the BLM document but indicated that the proposed action is "a significant first step" in protecting the area from oil and gas development.

"We are pleased to see the BLM propose cancelation of leases in the Thompson Divide and protection of roadless lands," Wilderness Workshop Staff Attorney Peter Hart said in a news release.

The Wilderness Workshop and Pitkin County have maintained that the leases were issued illegally in 2004 under an outdated 1993 Forest Service EIS without a proper environmental assessment.

"These leases were issued without any environmental review, without adequate public process, without necessary protections for wildlife and with no explicit protections for roadless areas," Hart said. "They occupy some of the most treasured public lands in the country. There isn't any way to resolve all of the problems with these leases short of cancelling them and starting over."

David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the BLM proposal was "shocking" but "not surprising."

West Slope COGA and energy companies that hold leases in the affected area, including SG Interests and Ursa Resources, were opposed to the BLM decision to review the leases.

"The outcome of this faux process has always been a pre-determined," Ludlam said in an emailed statement. "The constitution protects property rights and contracts, including leases, from populist, popularity contests and that's what makes our country great.

"In most nations, contracts and leases have no meaning let alone protections under the law," he said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., also commented, saying the BLM announcement "underscores the need to pass a balanced bill to give energy companies and communities certainty, while providing the common sense safeguards that Colorado counties and towns have been requesting for years."

Bennet has proposed legislation that would allow existing leases in the Thompson Divide to expire and withdraw the area from consideration for future leasing in perpetuity.

"Many counties have put forth and endorsed thoughtful proposals that strike the necessary balance between conservation and oil and gas development," Bennet said in a news release. "Rather than waiting for a regulatory outcome that will likely lead to protracted litigation, we should look toward these local proposals as a path forward."

Bennet and others, including the Garfield County commissioners, have related the Thompson Divide issue to the debate over leasing on the Roan Plateau west of Rifle. There, the BLM, conservation groups and energy companies reached a settlement where leases in the more pristine areas on top of the plateau were withdrawn, while leases that can be accessed from the base would continue.

That settlement was embodied in a new BLM analysis and draft decision regarding the Roan Plateau leases that was released by the agency on Tuesday.

"As we learned after more than a decade of debate over leasing on the Roan Plateau, it's possible and preferable to find a compromise solution supported by all the parties involved," Bennet said in the release.

This story will be updated through the day.

The BLM will host three public meetings on the Draft EIS from 4 to 7 p.m., at the following locations:

 • Dec. 14, Glenwood Springs Community Center, 100 Wulfson Road.

 • Dec. 15, De Beque Elementary School, 730 Minter Ave., De Beque.

 • Dec. 16, Roaring Fork High School, 2270 Highway 133, Carbondale.

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