Conservationists, cowboys team to oppose gas leases near Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Conservationists, cowboys team to oppose gas leases near Carbondale

CARBONDALE ” A new coalition that includes cowboys as well as conservationists wants to prevent natural gas drilling in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale.

The Thompson Divide Coalition hopes to prevent drilling on about 100,000 acres of public lands already leased to oil and gas companies in the Thompson Creek area. There are 81 leases in the vicinity but, so far, little exploration. The coalition also wants to prevent the federal government from granting leases on another 121,300 acres in Thompson Creek.

“It’s a challenge but I think there are ways to do it,” said Dorothea Farris, chairwoman of the coalition and a former Pitkin County commissioner. “The climate is right.”

The recession and the political change at the White House provided a “breathing spell” to allow people concerned about the drilling threat to work on the issue, Farris said. Low gas prices have cooled what she labeled a period of “relentless gas-development pressure in western Colorado.”

The Thompson Creek area and adjacent Coal Basin near Redstone are on the eastern edge of the gas-rich Piceance Basin. Piceance Basin has been the scene of intense gas development this decade. The Crystal River Valley is a transition zone between the gas-rich Piceance Basin and gas-poor Roaring Fork Valley.

There has already been some gas development in the area the coalition wants protected. The Wolf Creek natural field was developed in the 1950s about 12 miles southwest of Carbondale, in extreme western Pitkin County. The wells there were tapped in 1972 and are now used for underground storage of natural gas that is shipped out via pipeline when demand spikes during winters.

Recommended Stories For You

Wilderness Workshop, which is the oldest, locally based environmental group in the valley, has sounded an alarm about the gas leasing and potential for extraction in the Thompson Creek area over the last five years. Now, the broader-based coalition is attacking the issue.

The coalition members include the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association, which has grazing rights in the area of concern; numerous owners of ranches or other property in the area; recreationalists; hunting and fishing groups; and several conservation groups.

“It’s not just the ‘crazy environmentalists’ that are concerned,” Farris said. “It’s not just the tree-huggers like me.”

The ranchers are concerned that bulldozing new roads and drilling pads could ruin grazing grounds.

“That’s the heart of nearly every rancher in the Crystal Valley’s operation,” said rancher Bill Fales.

He said his family’s ranch, the Nieslanik family ranches and the Ty Bar Ranch lease lands from the U.S. Forest Service for grazing. Those lands could be affected by gas leases.

Hunters are worried that drilling activity will drive out deer, elk and other game. Anglers are worried about impacts to water quality. Environmentalists are concerned that gas development could damage wilderness and roadless areas.

The diversity of the coalition and the “fresh voices” speaking out could help capture the public’s attention and encourage action, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop.

The Thompson Creek area has seen limited drilling so far because the potential payoff isn’t as great as in areas farther west ” around Silt, Rifle and Parachute. But Farris said higher gas prices and technological advances could make drilling more realistic in the future. The coalition’s research shows Thompson Creek leases are held by industry heavyweights such as Encana, Chevron, Marathon Oil and obscure firms like Falcon Seaboard and Windsor Castle Springs.

Encana officials repeatedly told The Aspen Times during the height of the gas boom earlier this decade that they have no immediate plans to explore in the Thompson Creek area.

The coalition is concerned that technical aspects of federal leasing laws may force some action. Leases are “let” for 10 years. A firm can avoid expiration of the lease by performing exploratory work. That could encourage some level of work even if extraction isn’t immediately financially viable in Thompson Creek, Farris said.

Getting the leases terminated will be a challenge, Farris acknowledged, but the coalition is hopeful that the federal government under the Obama administration will be more willing to consider protecting “special places” like Thompson Creek.

The coalition came together in recent months and now is going public. It will meet about once per month and determine a plan of action by fall, Farris said.

scondon@aspentimes.com