Council shows its support for Thompson Divide legislation | AspenTimes.com

Council shows its support for Thompson Divide legislation

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The Aspen City Council indicated during a work session Monday that it would support federal legislation that seeks to protect much of the Thompson Divide area from future drilling.

A letter has been drafted to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., stating that the city of Aspen will support his legislation. Bennet has authored the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, which seeks to prevent further leasing in Thompson Divide but does nothing to address drilling on existing leases. The council won’t formally push the endorsement letter forward until its regular meeting Oct. 8.

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

Because SG’s leases are set to expire next spring, the company is moving quickly to secure the federal production permits that would enable it to retain its drilling rights.

Other companies with leases in Thompson Divide, which covers 221,500 acres of federal land in five counties, are said to be considering production permits. Critics contend extraction of gas could harm the environment, eliminating or reducing the viability of ranching, farming and outdoor recreation in Thompson Divide and adjacent lands. Proponents of drilling say SG Interests and other gas companies have a legal right to extract resources from their leases.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the anti-drilling Thompson Divide Coalition, addressed council members briefly Monday.

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“From a congressional-action standpoint, all (Bennet’s bill) does is withdraws unleased acreage in the Thompson Divide area from future availability for development,” he said.

As for the existing mineral leases, Kessler said the coalition would continue to pursue a strategy of trying to convince the energy companies with a stake in Thompson Divide to sell their leases to his organization. The Thompson Divide Coalition would then keep them free from development, he said.

Bennet’s bill would give the coalition the federal authority needed to purchase and retire the leases for conservation purposes should the energy stakeholders agree to sell them, Kessler said.

Aspen will join governments representing Garfield County and the towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Snowmass Village in providing written support for Bennet’s legislation. Elected officials in Pitkin and Gunnison counties also recently gave their blessings to the initiative.

“We’re meeting with Glenwood Springs (officials) later this week,” Kessler said. “It’s important that we are able to tell our federal delegation that we have unanimous support from every municipality in the valley and the three relevant counties.”

In other business, council members and city staff initiated the 2013 budget process. Plans call for a $51.02 million operating budget, a 2.2 percent increase compared with 2012’s $49.94 million. More meetings on the topic have been scheduled; typically, the city approves its annual budgets by early December.

asalvail@aspentimes.com