Crystal caucus joins drilling fight |

Crystal caucus joins drilling fight

A coalition of environmental groups has gained another important ally in the attempt to prevent additional public land in Pitkin County from being leased for natural gas exploration.The Crystal River Caucus voted 38-2 Thursday night to “object strenuously” to leasing and drilling on public land throughout the Crystal River drainage without extensive studies of the environmental impacts.The vote didn’t reflect it, but there were two camps within the majority block. One camp wanted to fight at all costs the leasing of public land and potential drilling that could follow.But concessions were made to a second, smaller camp that wasn’t necessarily opposed to natural gas production if the public land managers at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make sure it doesn’t harm the environment.The group massaged its motion to make it acceptable to both camps.The Pitkin County commissioners and the Carbondale Town Council had already joined the environmental groups in opposition to leasing public land for gas production.Lease sale triggers concernsThe concern was triggered by the BLM’s lease in May of two parcels of public land in extreme western Pitkin County. About 1,560 acres southwest of Carbondale in the vast Thompson Creek area were offered for lease and purchased by a brokerage company working on behalf of undisclosed oil and gas companies.Environmental groups headed by the Aspen-based Wilderness Workshop filed protests that are pending over the lease of those parcels.In an effort to give both sides in the issue their say, caucus leaders invited representatives of EnCana Oil and Gas Inc., a major natural gas producer in western Colorado, and the Wilderness Workshop to give presentations at their meeting.EnCana didn’t respond to the invitation, according to Bill Fales, a co-moderator of the meeting.Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, gladly accepted. He acknowledged that the environmental community didn’t catch on until May about the sale of leases in the White River National Forest at or near the western edge of Pitkin County.Thousands of acres worth of leases were sold before the latest round in May, with little notice from the federal government. Those sales can no longer be protested, and the land is susceptible to gas exploration, according to Shoemaker.He labeled the parcels that were offered by the BLM in May “the last little donut holes” available to the oil and gas industry in Thompson Creek.Snowball’s chance of prevailing?The environmental watchdogs are now poised to protest any lease in roadless areas, such as Thompson Creek. While roads protrude into sections of the Thompson Creek area, there are thousands of acres of untouched land that is prime habitat for wildlife, Shoemaker said. Thompson Creek is part of a 125,000-acre area that’s the largest roadless complex in Colorado, he said.”Ecologically it’s a really important chunk of the landscape,” he said.A woman in the audience at the caucus meeting questioned if opposition to gas production would do any good. “Do we have a snowball’s chance of stopping this?” she asked.The conservation groups say that protesting the sales – on the grounds that the lands are too ecologically valuable to risk damaging – is the key to preventing gas production. It is virtually impossible to prevent a company from acquiring a drilling permit once it has a lease.”If we can kill the leasing itself, we can keep the drilling out of these areas,” said Shoemaker.And for the first time publicly, the conservation coalition acknowledged it will go to court to try to prevent drilling on the latest leases to be sold. Shoemaker said that if the protests to the May sales are denied by the BLM, the environmental coalition will likely seek an injunction in court to prevent the sale from progressing. Next, it would file an administrative appeal within the BLM.If that appeal was denied, Shoemaker said, the coalition would go to court to try to protect the roadless area.The environmental coalition is hosting a public meeting Wednesday, Aug. 4, at Carbondale Town Hall, from 7 to 9 p.m. to discuss the gas drilling issues in the White River National Forest.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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