Carbondale coalition rallies to block gas drilling | AspenTimes.com

Carbondale coalition rallies to block gas drilling

CARBONDALE – A Carbondale-based organization whose membership includes everyone from hippies to ranchers rallied its supporters Wednesday night to step up efforts to try to prevent natural gas extraction in the Thompson Divide area.

The Thompson Divide Coalition’s “town hall meeting” drew well in excess of 100 midvalley residents. The diverse crowd included a doctor, a Basalt business owner, ranchers and an environmental activist and author.

“We are a small organization. We need help,” Clare Bastable, a member of the coalition’s board of directors, told the audience. “We’re kind of at a critical stage. Our members of Congress want to know if this is important to their constituents.”

The coalition contends that the 221,490 acres of the Thompson Divide area are too valuable as wildlife habitat, essential watershed, grazing for livestock and important recreational land to allow gas exploration.

The Thompson Divide area stretches from just south of Glenwood Springs to Carbondale and includes the vast, often roadless area west of Highway 133, stretching south of McClure Pass.

About 75,500 acres of federal lands, mostly national forest, has already been leased to energy companies, but there hasn’t been extensive development.

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That could change in the near future. SG Interests, a privately held firm based in Houston, has applied to the Bureau of Land Management to lump 16 leases it owns in the heart of Thompson Divide into a single unit and submit a drilling master plan for an area of roughly 36,000 acres.

There is no deadline for a BLM decision. If the bureau approves the request, SG Interests would be required to start drilling at regular intervals – up to two wells per year – to keep the unit intact.

It represents the potential for the first significant drilling of gas wells in Pitkin County. About 88,000 acres of the Thompson Divide area are in western Pitkin County.

SG Interests representative Eric Sanford told the crowd the company has high hopes for its leases: “We think it’s a very significant resource,” he said, noting that the company already has had success south of the targeted area, in Gunnison County.

“We feel this area can be developed in a responsible way,” Sanford added. He invited audience members to check his company’s record of working with large ranches where it has been drilling for the past decade south of McClure Pass.

Many audience members expressed wariness about any drilling activity in Thompson Divide. Merlin Broughton, whose family’s roots in the Roaring Fork Valley go back to the 1880s, said property he is familiar with on Mamm Peak in the Rifle area “is so chopped up it’s just sad.” It used to be among the best elk country in Colorado, but roads for gas fields have driven the wildlife away and ruined it for hunters, he said.

Judy Fox-Perry, a rancher outside of Carbondale, said Thompson Divide doesn’t get the recognition of a lot of areas but deserves protection.

“Thompson Divide is pretty much in my backyard, so you can call me a NIMBY,” Fox-Perry said. “But it’s in all our backyards.”

That was the prevailing attitude of audience members. Jean Owen of El Jebel spoke during the meeting about the importance of everyone writing letters to members of Congress, the BLM and the energy companies to express that Thompson Divide should be off limits for gas extraction. Following the meeting, she said she was energized by the gathering to take action. “I don’t feel helpless at all,” she said.

“We own the land,” Owen added, noting that the BLM follows the direction of the public. That’s why it is important for coalition members to rally enough people to convince legislators and the agency to listen and find a way to prevent gas exploration.

Bastable said the meeting attracted people already enlisted in the Thompson Divide Coalition, but also new members.

The coalition has been on a steady course since 2008. It’s big-picture goals are to get federal legislation passed to withdraw leasing on federal lands in Thompson Divide and to work with leaseholders such as SG Interests to purchase, exchange or retire their existing leases.

Sanford said it would be expensive to acquire the leases SGI holds.

Dorothea Farris of Carbondale, vice president of the coalition’s board, said the organization isn’t writing off the 36,000 acres that SGI is targeting. There is no Plan B in case SGI earns the right to drill in the heart of the divide, Farris said.

scondon@aspentimes.com