BLM pressed to reopen Thompson Divide lease review
A new round of debate is emerging in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s review of 65 oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest after a new geological report showed a greater prospect for natural gas resources in the region.
Industry interests, along with U.S. Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, asked BLM officials both locally and in Washington, D.C., to reopen the public process after a draft environmental analysis was released earlier this year.
A final environmental impact statement is expected later this summer, and the BLM has said it plans to cancel 25 undeveloped leases in the sensitive Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs and apply new restrictions to the remaining 40 leases located on forest lands farther west.
That was before a U.S. Geological Survey report was released in late May saying that the Mancos shale formation in the Piceance Basin of western Colorado may contain 66 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s about 40 times what the USGS estimated 13 years ago.
Energy interests have pointed to the updated study as reason to slow the BLM’s process and further evaluate whether the leases should be canceled or modified. They appear to have some support among congressional Republicans.
“I question the BLM’s authority to take such a drastic step of canceling valid leases, particularly when it is doubtful whether such action has been taken based on the best available information,” Bishop wrote in a June 30 letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze.
In the letter, Bishop also questioned a 2014 U.S. Forest Service analysis that led to the decision by White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams to exclude Thompson Divide from new oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years.
The BLM has not responded to the request to reopen its lease review. But the new USGS study did prompt the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources to hold a hearing Tuesday to address the issue.
Industry representatives, a USGS official and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese were invited to speak at the hearing. Also speaking was Carbondale rancher and Thompson Divide Coalition member Bill Fales.
“I am not against oil and gas production,” Fales said at the hearing, making note that he relied on diesel fuel and hydraulic oil to put up 400 tons of hay over the past week.
“But this part of the forest is simply too important to our community to subject it to the impacts oil and gas development in this location would bring,” Fales told the panel.
Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG Interests, which holds 18 of the disputed leases in Thompson Divide, also spoke. He said SG has drilled a successful gas well seven miles south of those leases, but the changing BLM rules have made it hard to determine the potential for Thompson Divide leases.
“It’s almost like a Third World country when you don’t have certainty as to what the regulations are going to be or if you’re even going to be able to develop,” Guinn told the panel. “So it certainly chills investment opportunities.”
However, groups including the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said the new USGS study supports their position that oil and gas development should be concentrated away from the more remote, sensitive areas such as Thompson Divide.
“We hope that BLM doesn’t slow down the process,” Peter Hart, staff attorney and conservation analyst for the Wilderness Workshop, said in an email to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
“From our perspective, there have been numerous meaningful opportunities for comment,” he said, pointing to the more than 50,000 people who submitted comments to BLM during the environmental analysis.
“Industry previously boycotted the process,” he said of a decision by groups such as the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association not to attend hearings, saying they thought the outcome was already predetermined.
“I think that weighs in favor of staying on schedule and getting this analysis done so that we can all move on,” Hart said. “The extraordinary increase in shale gas that USGS estimates underground in the Piceance Basin, coupled with the national glut of natural gas, provides a reason not to drill every acre.”
Thompson Divide Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler attended the hearing but did not testify.
“Mr. Fales should be commended for speaking out on behalf of the many folks that depend on public lands in the Thompson Divide,” Kessler said in an email.
“For him to leave his ranch at the peak of haying season with only four days notice helps to demonstrate just how important this issue is for him and for our unified community,” he said.
Kessler also criticized comments by Pugliese, who suggested during that hearing that tourism jobs generated by recreation activities on public lands cannot sustain families in the same way as oil and gas jobs.
“That is completely inaccurate and downright offensive,” Kessler said. “Ranching and tourism jobs in our community feed families in the same way that oil and gas jobs feed families in the center of the Piceance Basin, when they’re there.”
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