Pitkin County to BLM on oil leases: Say what? | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County to BLM on oil leases: Say what?

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
An aerial view of the Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale.
EcoFlight photo

The Bureau of Land Management appears to be leaning toward ratifying oil and gas drilling leases in the Thompson Divide area, and Pitkin County commissioners aren’t happy about it.

That’s the sentiment expressed in a letter to be mailed later this week from commissioners to BLM officials, which provides comment on the BLM’s preliminary draft environmental impact statement for the leases, which were awarded in 2003 without a proper environmental review or public participation.

The draft of the environmental impact statement currently is only available to governmental agencies such as Pitkin County, which are involved in the environmental review of the leases. The final statement won’t be publicly available until probably late November, said Chris Seldin, assistant Pitkin County attorney.

However, Pitkin County’s response offers clues as to what the BLM might decide to do in the final environmental review.

First, in an Aug. 11 meeting of the governmental agencies involved in the process, the BLM indicated it would select a “proposed action” that would ratify the existing 65 leases — 25 of which are in Pitkin County — with only minor changes, according to Pitkin County’s letter.

The BLM said at that meeting it would choose that option because it is most consistent with previous U.S. Forest Service decisions as well as the agency’s own position “that although BLM has the authority to cancel leases, we would not take that action lightly or prior to detailed analysis and consideration,” according to Pitkin County’s letter.

“This rationale is troubling on several levels,” Pitkin County commissioners said in their letter.

First, the Forest Service decisions referred to are “one to two decades out of date,” the letter states. Moreover, the Forest Service determined in a December 2014 analysis its prior decisions were out of date and that no new gas or oil leases should be awarded in Thompson Divide, the letter states.

“Second, BLM’s apparent presumption against canceling leases appears to be more a political standard fashioned to favor industry over the public than a principle with any basis in … law,” according to the letter.

The BLM already set precedent by canceling illegally issued oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area in 2009 and 2010 without applying the presumption officials articulated in the Aug. 11 meeting, the Pitkin County letter states. Commissioners also pointed out that compliance with the law takes precedence over compliance with improperly issued lease contracts.

Finally, the suggestion that there has not been enough detailed analysis of the issue “is difficult to understand,” commissioners wrote, in light of heavy public participation in the current environmental review, the 2014 Forest Service review and extensive participation by area governmental agencies.

Commissioners, instead, want the BLM to consider a different alternative that would cancel the Pitkin County leases, allow the BLM’s environmental process to go forward and let the BLM consider the leases anew without the apparent bias that arises if the agency merely ratifies the leases it improperly awarded, the letter states.

Seldin said the BLM has received more than 30,000 public comments during the current environmental review, more than 90 percent of which favor canceling the leases.

A phone message left Tuesday for the BLM seeking comment was not returned.

Thompson Divide is a 220,000 acre area located in the White River National Forest southwest of Carbondale.