Pitkin County renews call to prevent drilling in Thompson Divide | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County renews call to prevent drilling in Thompson Divide

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Coloardo
Courtesy of Wilderness WorkshopThis map shows the leases that SG Interests wants to coordinate into a unit to the west and southwest of Carbondale. If the BLM approves an application, it would allow SG Interests to implement a long-term drilling plan as long as certain production criteria are met. Conservation groups are working to get the leases retired.

ASPEN – A natural gas company’s plans in Thompson Divide outside of Carbondale have triggered a renewed call from Pitkin County commissioners for legislation to prevent oil and gas drilling in the area.

Commissioners agreed Tuesday to send a letter to several Colorado congressmen urging them to introduce legislation that would permanently withdraw the Thompson Divide area, west and southwest of Carbondale, from availability for future leasing.

The letter presses for quick action to prevent the approval of an application from SG Interests to group together federal lands it already leases in Thompson Divide into a specially designated unit that conservation groups say poses a real threat of drilling activity in the area.

Houston-based SG Interests filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management to “unitize” its 16 leases, plus two others – a move that opponents believe would allow it to drill one test well for the entire unit and hold onto the leases for the foreseeable future. Most of SG’s leases in the area are set to expire in 2013, according to Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which has teamed up with Western Resources Advocates and High Country Citizens’ Alliance to oppose the drilling of gas wells in the rugged lands.

“We are concerned that once approved, unitization adds to the legitimacy of oil and gas leases we believe were improperly let in the largest roadless area in the state,” reads Pitkin County’s letter. “Pitkin County believes any development on Thompson Divide will have unacceptable impacts on the natural assets of this important area.”

The county’s concerns were heightened, the letter adds, by a lawsuit SG Interests filed last month against Gunnison County, challenging that county’s oil and gas regulations.

Commissioners initially intended to send their letter solely to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, but agreed Tuesday to broaden the list of recipients to include U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, as well as officials with the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

SG’s unitization application, which came to light last month, prompted Pitkin County’s reiteration of a position it had already taken.

“That has definitely brought it back to the front burner – the urgency of moving this forward,” said Commissioner George Newman. He spoke with Bennet’s staff about the county’s Thompson Divide concerns last spring in Washington, D.C.

Last month, the county sent a letter to BLM and Forest Service officials asking that the BLM deny SG Interests’ proposal to designate a 32,000-acre exploratory unit in Thompson Divide. A large chunk of the land is within Pitkin County.

The acreage stretches from Sunlight Peak southward to the edge of Coal Basin, west of Redstone. The land is west of the Spring Gulch cross-country ski area and roughly 4 to 6 miles west of Highway 133.

Opponents to gas and oil development in the area contend Thompson Divide isn’t conducive to drilling because establishing pads and roads will ruin its natural characteristics. A portion of the lands that SG Interests leases is within the Thompson Creek Roadless Area.

Among the groups fighting the drilling threat is the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, which had enlisted former U.S. Rep John Salazar to take forward legislation proposed by the coalition. Then, Tipton unseated Salazar.

Now, Tipton and Bennet’s offices are working together on the issue, according to Dorothea Farris, vice president of the coalition and a former Pitkin County commissioner.

Farris said Tipton wants to bring SG Interests and the Thompson Divide Coalition to the table.

“We never have been able to sit down at the table with the people who make the decisions,” she said, referring to SG. “I think the unitization issue brings it to the fore.”

A spokesman for Bennet’s office confirmed Wednesday that the county’s letter had been received and that the request was under review.

“We will listen to all local stakeholders and work toward a solution that reflects the shared goals of area residents and the local community,” the spokesman said in an email.