Congressional hopeful lobbied to stop drilling |

Congressional hopeful lobbied to stop drilling

Scott Condon/The Aspen TimesSal Pace, center, a Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, listens Friday as a speaker makes a point about drilling for natural gas in Thompson Divide.

CARBONDALE – Ranchers, conservationists and political figures lobbied congressional candidate Sal Pace on Friday to prevent development of gas wells in Thompson Divide if he gets elected in November.

Pace is a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton for the 3rd Congressional District seat. He invited about a dozen Roaring Fork Valley residents Friday to share their thoughts about drilling in the Thompson Divide area, west of Carbondale.

Several speakers hammered away on variations of the theme that the outdoor recreation industry and ranching depend on preservation of special places such as Thompson Divide. The divide is a 221,500-acre swath of land that stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort, the ski area outside Glenwood Springs, to McClure Pass. The area is west of Highway 133.

Bill Fales, a longtime rancher in the Crystal River Valley, said he has senior water rights on Thompson Creek and a grazing allotment on federal lands in Thompson Divide. He depends on clean water and an unspoiled environment to make his cattle operation work.

“I think cows are a great tool for managing land, and I really like working with them, but I don’t try to put them everywhere,” Fales said. “And I think that’s the same thing we need to look at with oil and gas.”

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, a conservation group, said not every place that holds natural gas deposits needs to be drilled, and where drilling occurs, it must be done right.

He contended that Thompson Divide is one of the special places that should be preserved because of its value as wildlife habitat, as well as its importance to the sustainable businesses of ranching and outdoor recreation – everything from hunting and fishing to hiking and rock climbing.

“We don’t want to make a long-term trade of these sustainable jobs that are embedded in our community and the sustainable economy as a result for a short-term boom cycle of jobs and economic infusion that in the long term will harm that sustainable economy in the Carbondale area,” Shoemaker said.

Fales pressed the same point about Thompson Divide from a rancher’s perspective.

“I just think this area is a proverbial goose that’s been laying a golden egg for the community every year. I don’t want to go in there and cut the head off the goose (then) look for the eggs and find there aren’t any,” Fales said. “That’s what I feel the gas industry would do to this area.”

A company that leases thousands of acres of public lands in Thompson Divide has informed the Bureau of Land Management that it is preparing to apply for permits to drill wells. Houston-based SG Interests is exploring development of seven to nine well pads, according to the BLM. Each pad can have one or more wells.

In a separate action, SG Interests applied to the BLM to lump 18 of its gas leases into a single unit. If the 32,000-acre Lake Ridge Unit is approved, it would allow the company to hold its leases for a longer time. As of now, 20 leases the company owns are set to expire between May 31 and Aug. 31, 2013.

Proponents of drilling say SG Interests and other gas companies have a legal right to extract resources from their leases. They also say that drilling would provide well-paying jobs to the area.

Critics contend extraction of gas could harm the environment in a way that ranching and outdoor recreation aren’t viable any longer in Thompson Divide and adjacent lands.

“It’s not whether we want jobs or not, it’s which jobs. We like the jobs we’ve got now because it works,” Shoemaker said.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a citizens’ group fighting to prevent drilling, said the big picture of job generation is critical to the debate. In the five counties that have lands in the Thompson Divide area – Pitkin, Garfield, Delta, Gunnison and Mesa – there are 100,000 in private industry, which includes tourism and recreation; 30,000 jobs in agriculture and ag services; and just under 10,000 in oil and gas production and services. The figures were from 2008.

“Oil and gas is not the only economic driver in this area,” Kessler said.

Thompson Divide Coalition will do an analysis of the economy and jobs based on existing uses of the land and compare the data with job projections made by the oil and gas industry.

“I’m confident the existing economic benefits will trump” the potential jobs created by development of the landscape, Kessler said.

“For me and the coalition this is about jobs, this is about local control, this about our ability to protect our water and our landscape,” he added.

Pace met with the group as part of a tour of the sprawling Congressional district to discuss top issues with residents. Other participants were Auden Schendler of Aspen Skiing Co.; Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman; county commissioner candidates Steve Child and John Young; former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt; Aaron Kindle of Trout Unlimited; Mark Hilberman of Redstone; Fred Lodge of Basalt and Dorothea Farris of Carbondale from the Thompson Divide Coalition’s board of directors; and Laurie Stevens of the coalition’s staff. All spoke against drilling. No representative of the gas industry was invited.

Pace noted that he has already written a letter to the Secretary of the Interior to ask that SG Interest’s request to form a unit with 18 of its leases be denied.

However, Pace also made it clear he feels a consensus is needed among the various stakeholders in Thompson Divide.

“My philosophy is we’re given false choices too often,” Pace said. “It’s an option of economy and jobs versus environment.”

He doesn’t believe it needs to be that way. As long as the various participants in a debate respect the environment, respect existing industries such as ranching, and respect the property rights of gas companies with valid leases, solutions can be arranged, he said.

On the other hand, Pace said he believes there are “some special places” that need protection from drilling.

Tipton is a proponent of expanding extraction of oil and gas in the district. He hosted a meeting between Thompson Divide Coalition and gas companies earlier this year to help them explore an end to the battle over drilling.

The election is in 67 days, Pace noted on Friday. After the election, presuming he wins, he wants to reconvene Friday’s panel members and “meet with the folks from Houston” to see if solutions can be reached.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) has introduced a bill that would prevent further leasing in Thompson Divide, but it does nothing to address drilling on existing leases.

Options such as purchases or exchanges of the existing leases have been raised as idea. Pace was noncommittal on the option he prefers.

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