Enviros hoping to quash oil, gas leases | AspenTimes.com

Enviros hoping to quash oil, gas leases

A coalition of environmental groups is trying to convince the Bureau of Land Management that it shouldn’t offer thousands of acres of public lands for lease to the oil and gas industry on May 13.

The coalition, headed by the Wilderness Society, contends that 31 of 77 parcels being offered for lease and potentially opened for gas and oil exploration have wilderness characteristics. If those parcels are leased and explored they will forever lose their special qualities and no longer be eligible for wilderness designation, according to Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society’s Four Corners office.

“Oil and gas is not the only purpose for BLM lands,” he said.

The environmental coalition has been lobbying for years to get 1.6 million additional acres designated wilderness in Colorado, including 1.3 million acres on BLM land. Under President Bush’s administration, the BLM has stopped considering new lands for wilderness.

Now the very thing the environmentalists feared is coming to roost: The lands which they felt deserved protection could be seriously damaged, Smith said.

Most of those lands are in the West Slope canyon country between Parachute and the Utah border. However, they also come close to home. Some of the parcels that will be offered for lease on May 13 are in the Thompson Creek area, west of Carbondale. Those potential lease sites are partially within Pitkin County.

Richard Compton, director of the White River Conservation Project, which is working to protect roadless areas, said if oil and gas exploration occurs in the Thompson Creek parcels it would damage some of the best wildlife habitat in Colorado. Thompson Creek is on the eastern edge of a 125,000-acre roadless area that Compton calls “the forgotten wilderness” because public land managers have done nothing to preserve it.

That parcel has the largest concentration of old-growth spruce fir in the White River National Forest and possibly the largest aspen forest in the world, according to the Wilderness Society.

That massive roadless area forms a rough triangle, extending south to McClure Pass and northwest toward Rifle. Oil and gas exploration has already infringed on that roadless area and threatens to carve it up further, Compton said.

The environmental groups aren’t alleging that the lands in Pitkin County would be prime targets for exploration by the gas industry. “Given the backlog of leases I don’t know if any of these would be on the front burner,” said Compton.

But the fact that the oil and gas industry nominated those public lands to be offered for lease suggests they see potential there, noted Smith. When the lands are offered for lease May 13, the leases will be sold via auction. The successful bidders have a certain amount of time to drill at least one well on the parcel, according to Smith. The amount of time available to drill varies with different leases, he said.

If the leaseholder meets that deadline, it holds the lease forever. If it doesn’t, the lease expires but can be offered again in the future, Smith said.

So the sale of a lease doesn’t guarantee there will be drilling. And the drilling of an exploratory well doesn’t guarantee there will be widespread development of wells, the environmental community concedes.

Pete Kolbenschlag, a spokesman for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said the environmental community would rather stop the leases than gamble that the leased ground won’t prove lucrative enough for oil and gas development.

“Stopping it five years from now when they decide to develop is next to impossible,” said Kolbenschlag.

The strategy of the environmental coalition is to try to change the BLM’s policies and get lands with possible wilderness attributes removed from oil and gas lease auctions, Smith said. Protests will be filed before May 13 over the parcels that the environmental coalition believes should be excluded.

Smith contended that the coalition isn’t against all oil and gas exploration on public lands. But there needs to be a balance between protection of wildlife habitat and needs of the oil industry, he said.

In a press release, the environmental coalition claimed the Bush administration is engaging in “increasingly controversial efforts to hand over Western wilderness and other valuable public lands to the oil and gas industry.” Smith said he believes a change in administration would be beneficial.

He also questioned the need for further exploration into these potential wilderness areas. Wilderness Society research shows that 68 percent of public lands leased in the Rocky Mountain states for oil and gas is not producing.

“There is a lot of opportunity out there without expanding into these wildernesses,” Smith said.

The environmental coalition plans on spreading that word over the next few months. It will start today with a teleconference featuring U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, a prime sponsor of a bill to add more wilderness in Colorado.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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