Forest oil, gas lease plan ‘reflects public’s values’

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest Supervisor

A new management plan for issuing oil and gas leases in the White River National Forest for the next two decades, including the removal of about 61,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area from new leasing, became final Thursday.

“We are delighted to be able to conclude this process, which has been a long one and at times controversial,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said.

“I think we came to the right decision and one that reflects the values we heard from the public during the input process,” he said.

The 20-year leasing plan was released in late 2014 but subject to a formal objection period that concluded earlier this year.

The plan leaves 194,100 acres available for oil and gas leasing. Most of that acreage is situated in north-central Rio Blanco County and along the Garfield/Mesa county lines in the far southwestern portion of the roughly 2-million-acre White River National Forest.

It closes 1,281,700 acres to new leasing, most of which is not considered to have high potential for oil and gas development.

The plan does, however, remove about 61,000 acres in the Thompson Divide region south of Glenwood Springs that has “high potential” for development, but which the vast majority of comments suggested was not appropriate for leasing due to the natural and recreational qualities that exist.

Another 800,555 acres of the forest is off limits to leasing for other reasons, including wilderness designation, permitted ski areas, campgrounds and other administrative closures.

Energy companies and trade groups were among the formal objectors to the plan, saying it removes hundreds of thousands of acres that does have potential for future oil and gas development, especially with technological advances.

A stipulation that prevents surface structures on any leases that are issued in designated roadless areas under the new plan and limits access to those sites essentially closes the forest to future leasing, David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said.

“This is not a forest plan, it’s a forest ban,” Ludlam said in an email.

“The document closes public access to public energy resources,” he said. “Future leasing and exploration is hugely restricted, tons of acreage is closed and what little acreage is available is bridled with so many stipulations as to make development difficult at best.”

Conservation groups praised forest officials for following through on the plan to remove the Thompson Divide area from new leasing under the plan.

“This codifies what we already know — that the Thompson Divide just isn’t the right place for oil and gas development,” said Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition. “It is a clear indication that overwhelming public support for protecting the Thompson Divide can and should carry significant weight under (the National Environmental Policy Act).”

Kessler said the leasing decision allows for future energy development in “high-value” areas of the Piceance Basin, near Rifle and De Beque.

“In doing so, it helps to establish a greater level of balance for our nation’s most heavily recreated forest,” he said.

The Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition commissioned a peer-reviewed assessment of hydrocarbon potential in Thompson Divide and found it to be not viable commercially and “prohibitively expensive” for companies to drill there.

Another Carbondale-based group, the Wilderness Workshop, initiated the push in the early 2000s for local forest officials to revise the leasing plan.

“With issuance of a final decision today, that nearly 15-year campaign has achieved meaningful success,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop.

The group also was among the objectors when the forest leasing plan was released, saying it didn’t go far enough to remove other areas that share similar qualities with Thompson Divide.

The new leasing plan does not affect about two dozen existing leases in the Thompson Divide area that were already issued under the 1993 forest oil and gas leasing plan.

However, most of those leases would be canceled and others modified under a just-released draft environmental analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The BLM had indicated that it would take the new forest leasing plan into consideration in deciding whether to allow the existing leases to continue.

The draft the BLM plan, which proposes to allow 40 additional leases to continue within the portion of the forest that is to remain open for new leasing, is in the middle of a formal public comment period.

“We hope that BLM takes note of this Forest Service decision,” Hart said. “Today, the Forest Service made it very clear that the Thompson Divide is an inappropriate place for oil and gas leasing and that roadless areas must be protected from surface disturbance.

“BLM should follow this direction as it considers canceling leases it sold illegally in the Thompson Divide and local roadless areas,” he said.

The BLM is hosting three public meetings later this month to present the proposal and receive comments, on Dec. 14 at the Glenwood Springs Community Center, Dec. 15 at De Beque Elementary School and Dec. 16 at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. All three meetings will run from 4 to 7 p.m.