Industry claims opponents want to ruin drilling plans in Thompson Divide

John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Oil and gas industry supporters say that environmentalists, a hostile Pitkin County government and sympathetic federal bureaucrats are conspiring to sabotage the industry’s plans to drill on federal lands in Thompson Divide.

In a 12-page letter sent to acting U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director Mike Pool on Oct. 30, two gas industry trade groups allege that the agency’s review process for drilling rights is being deliberately delayed, forcing gas leases to expire.

At issue are efforts by energy companies to drill on federal land in Thompson Divide. The land largely is owned by the U.S. Forest Service but controlled for energy exploration by the U.S Bureau of Land Management.

Thompson Divide is 221,500 acres of land stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass, and from just west of the Crystal River over to Divide Creek. Several drilling companies are planning to sink wells at various locations in the area.

The BLM’s review process “is being politicized (and) delayed” on behalf of “a couple of wealthy upper-valley political donors” who oppose gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area, wrote David Ludlam, executive director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association (WSCOGA), and Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for Western Energy Alliance (WEA).

They sent copies of the letter to Pitkin County, other federal agencies, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

One target of the complaints, Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, denied that his organization is part of any such campaign, and said the accusations are beside the point.

“So what?” Shoemaker said. “It doesn’t matter. They’re trying to attack the messenger, when they should be dealing with the substance of the issues.”

BLM communications director Steven Hall said Pool had not sent an official response as of Thursday.

“The Thompson Divide exemplifies how complex land management can be, with multiple federal agencies working with local governments and private stakeholders, and strongly divergent views among the non-federal parties,” Hall noted.

The industry letter maintained that unidentified energy companies, members of the WSCOGA or the WEA, have been told by BLM officials that “leasing decisions made almost 10 years ago, including leases with producing wells, may have to undergo further environmental review and may be in jeopardy.”

Arguing that such treatment is “without precedent,” Ludlam wrote, “If BLM can jeopardize leases issued 10 years ago (and take other, similar actions against industry interests), why should oil and gas companies invest in federal leases?”

The industry letter noted that the federal government has a long history of working with the energy industry to develop reserves under federal lands. The letter was also strongly critical of local citizen-based efforts “to roll back the clock on federal leasing decisions … so that they can place 183,000 acres of several western Colorado counties off limits to oil and gas development.”

The letter specifically refers to efforts by two drilling companies – Antero Resources of Denver and SG Interests of Houston – to obtain BLM approvals for “unitization” of multiple leases in the Thompson Divide area.

Many of the leases in question are due to expire in the coming year. But if the leases are unitized, or connected into a single drilling unit, the deadlines may be pushed back under federal drilling rules and companies would have greater latitude in their drilling plans.

A primary target in Ludlam’s letter is an Oct. 9 letter sent to Pool by Pitkin County, asking the agency to forego the normal procedure of suspension of the existing leases while the agency considers the unitization and drilling proposals.

The normal suspension would stop the clock for upcoming lease expirations while the bureaucrats conduct their reviews.

To forego the suspension, argued Ludlam and Sgamma, would amount to a “lease-stripping” effort, allowing the leases to expire while the review was under way.

Ludlam and Sgamma claim this is the true nature of Pitkin County’s suggestion, and that its position is backed by two environmental organizations – Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition – that have opposed drilling in the Thompson Divide.

Pitkin County leaders couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ludlam, in his own email about the industry’s position, wrote, “The state BLM office has also been given orders to use creativity and discretion to run the clock out on leases that include Antero, Encana, SG and Willsource. We can’t even get the D.C. office to provide aspirational time lines for decisions on the unit applications.”

The Wilderness Workshop’s Shoemaker denied he contributed to Pitkin County’s letter to Pool. He suggested the industry is worried about the strength of its position.

“That demonstrates to me that they don’t have an argument,” Shoemaker said. “They’re trying to cast aspersions by association.”