Bringing it Home: Fracking bans sweep state but not Thompson Divide
December 25, 2013
Editor's note: "Bringing it Home" runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
There's a growing wave of bans on hydraulic fracturing sweeping the country, but the strategy appears unlikely to come into play in the battle over Thompson Divide outside Carbondale.
Conservationists dedicated to preserving Thompson Divide said they remain focused on preventing new leases from being sold to gas companies and retiring existing leases rather than arguing over the form of extraction.
"If you can't lease it, you can't develop it," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, the oldest locally based environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Houston-based S.G. Interests has applied to drill two test wells from the same pad on obscure ground in the northwest corner of Pitkin County, about eight miles southwest of Carbondale. The site is in the heart of Thompson Divide, 221,500 acres of federal land that stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass. There are 61 oil and gas leases covering 105,000 acres in the area.
Conservationists argue that the long-term economic benefits of Thompson Divide — from hunting, fishing, ranching and recreation — outweigh the short-term benefits derived from gas drilling. The gas companies maintain they have legitimate leases and a legal right to pursue production that will help supply the country with natural gas.
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S.G. Interests' application said the company wants to use fracking at its test wells to gauge the potential for production. Critics contend the chemicals used in the fracking process pose a potential threat to water supplies.
Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, an outspoken proponent of preserving Thompson Divide, said he wouldn't be opposed to looking into a fracking ban in the county. However, he doesn't think it would apply to land managed by federal agencies. A local government wouldn't have the authority to dictate use on federal lands. It would apply only to private lands and county-owned lands.
S.G. Interests has proposed the test wells in the White River National Forest.
Like Shoemaker, Newman said fracking is a secondary issue in Thompson Divide. The real issue is whether leases were issued legally and whether the Bureau of Land Management should determine that some of S.G. Interests' leases expired due to lack of activity.
"Fracking is almost a sidebar to those more important issues," Newman said.
A fracking ban could be useful on lands such as the Jerome Park Conservation Area, 4,773 acres on which Pitkin County holds a conservation easement along with the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. That land, which includes the popular Spring Gulch Cross-Country Ski Area, is northeast of where S.G. Interests proposed to drill.
The Thompson Divide Coalition, a grassroots group that's brought together everyone from ranchers to hippies, mountain-bike riders and hunting guides over the common goal of preserving the area, hasn't taken a position on fracking. Executive director Zane Kessler wouldn't discuss whether a fracking ban is a legitimate issue. Instead, he issued a statement that said, "Members of the TDC have come together around the common goal of conserving a pristine area of national forest, the economic benefits it provides, and the lives and livelihoods it supports. We've long held that oil and gas drilling in the Divide is simply incompatible with that goal. It's not that drilling shouldn't occur anywhere, it's that drilling shouldn't occur everywhere — and Coloradans agree that special places like the Thompson Divide, especially given the lives and livelihoods it supports, aren't appropriate to drill."
While the Thompson Divide Coalition's official position sidesteps the fracking issues, a source within the group acknowledged there are divided opinions on whether a fracking ban should be pursued.
Elsewhere in Colorado, fracking bans are a major issue. Voters in four cities — Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette and Broomfield — approved bans within their boundaries in the November election. Longmont voters previously approved a ban.
Cities, towns and a handful of counties in several Eastern states have enacted bans, according to The New York Times. Even the city of Dallas — in the heart of oil and gas country — approved a ban covering most of the city. The proponents of bans have been labeled "fractivists."
The fight over Colorado bans has landed in the courtroom. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association filed a lawsuit Dec. 3 to overturn the bans in Fort Collins and Lafayette.
"COGA contends these bans are illegal since state regulations specify and the state Supreme Court has ruled that oil and gas development, which must employ hydraulic fracturing or fracking, supersedes local laws and cannot be banned," the association said in a statement about its lawsuit.
Roughly 95 percent of all wells in Colorado employ hydraulic fracturing, the association said, so bans could cripple the industry.