Feds backtrack on Kebler Pass drilling | AspenTimes.com

Feds backtrack on Kebler Pass drilling

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent

Following public outcry, the federal government this week deferred plans to issue leases for gas drilling near the scenic Kebler Pass area.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar also came out in opposition to the Kebler Pass leasing plans. But state BLM spokesperson Theresa Sauer said the U.S. Forest Service already had decided to defer leasing there and re-evaluate conditions for surface uses. The BLM administers gas leasing on both BLM and Forest Service lands, but the Forest Service manages the surface impacts of drilling.

Gunnison and Delta counties, the town of Paonia, the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway Committee and more than 500 residents all have protested the Kebler Pass lease. The land to be leased borders Paonia State Park and is at the bottom of the road leading from Highway 133 over Kebler Pass to Crested Butte.

“The scenic beauty of this area led to the establishment of several resorts which are now essential to the economic well-being of the community,” Salazar wrote Wednesday to Ron Wenker, the BLM’s state director in Colorado. “Industrial activity on this parcel could devastate the local economy.”

Pete Kolbenschlag, Western Slope field director for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said he’s grateful the Kebler Pass leasing plans have been deferred. But he said the federal government is failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and adequately involve the public and address its concerns before leasing.

“These parcels are not supposed to be put into the lease sale when they’re this problematic,” he said.

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“There’s something that’s kind of out of whack, it seems like, to a lot of people. It’s getting a little out of control. I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Sauer said the leases are consistent with federal law. “We always follow the NEPA process,” she said.

She said the BLM would like to do new resource management plans every 10 to 15 years but doesn’t have the money. However, it modifies plans to keep them updated, she said.

“We absolutely do a thorough review of our land-use plan and the area before we do a lease,” she said.

When a gas company asks the BLM to lease mineral rights, the agency checks to make sure energy development for the land in question is allowed under the plan for that area. That plan is developed under a public process, Sauer noted.

In considering requests to issue leases, the BLM looks at new information regarding such issues as species, habitat and land health. Also, the agency requires energy developers to protect air, water, wildlife and other resources on leased land, and do reclamation, she said.

“We make sure we’re not out there letting industry destroy the land,” she said.