Newman heads to D.C. to lobby against drilling | AspenTimes.com

Newman heads to D.C. to lobby against drilling

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

George Newman

ASPEN – Bending the ear of a U.S. senator with a new argument against drilling in Thompson Divide will be on Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman’s agenda in Washington, D.C., this week.

For the second straight year, Newman has been invited to the nation’s capital by the Wilderness Society, via Carbondale-based Wildneress Workshop, to participate in Great Outdoors America Week. The Wilderness Society is picking up the cost of his visit, but the commissioner once again will use the opportunity to lobby federal officials to block the drilling of gas wells in Thompson Divide.

Newman said he’ll meet with Mark Udall to express the county’s support for the senator’s Central Mountains wilderness proposal, which would extend wilderness protections to an additional 65,000 acres in Pitkin County, along with lands in Eagle and Summit counties.

In all, the proposal contemplates a wilderness designation in 32 areas covering nearly 236,000 acres in the three counties, including a portion of Thompson Divide outside Carbondale.

The embattled Divide, where local governments and conservation groups are butting heads with energy-development interests, is much larger than the piece Udall’s proposal would protect from oil and gas activity. Newman said he hopes to meet again with top administrators in the departments of the Interior and of Agriculture to lobby against drilling in Thompson Divide. He will also meet with Sen. Michael Bennet to urge legislation that would make the area off-limits to drilling.

“I have to have my elevator speech ready to go – you have to be able to convey your concerns in the time it would take to ride an elevator,” Newman said of his expected face time with Bennet.

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Newman said he will argue SG Interests unfairly acquired gas leases, given bid-rigging allegations involving SG and Gunnison Energy Corp. that recently led to a settlement in a federal antitrust case.

SG Interests has asked to “unitize” its 16 gas leases, plus two others, in the Lake Ridge Unit of the Thompson Divide – a move that opponents contend will allow the company to drill one test well and keep alive leases that would otherwise expire. Bennet and Udall previously asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to slow down on its approval process for the unitization request; the BLM has yet to make a decision.

Taking a different tack, the Thompson Divide Coalition this spring offered three leaseholders in the greater Thompson Divide area, including SG Interests, a total of $2.5 million to buy out the existing leases. At a roundtable meeting of opponents and backers of natural gas development in Thompson Divide, held with Bennet in April in Glenwood Springs, industry representatives indicated that they had no interest in the offer, Newman noted.

Thompson Divide stretches from Sunlight Peak outside Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass, including land in extreme western Pitkin County. All told, the area encompasses about 221,490 acres, including 180,330 acres in the White River and Gunnison national forests. Thompson Divide is on the southeast edge of the gas-rich Piceance Basin.

Drilling opponents want Thompson Divide protected from the environmental impacts of resource extraction, lobbying congressional representatives for legislative protection of the area and the BLM to deny the SG’s unitization request.

Newman said he doesn’t believe legislation is close at hand.

“I think [Bennet] is trying to determine if there’s any kind of compromises that can be achieved,” he said.

Newman leaves for Washington Monday morning and will return Thursday evening.

janet@aspentimes.com