RFTA steers clear of policy on Thompson Divide gas drilling | AspenTimes.com

RFTA steers clear of policy on Thompson Divide gas drilling

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

CARBONDALE – The valley’s bus agency has decided to steer clear of the dispute over drilling for natural gas in the Thompson Divide area outside Carbondale at a time when it is considering fueling some of its vehicles with compressed natural gas.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) board of directors declined Thursday to vote on a proposed policy statement that declared that the Thompson Divide area was “inappropriate for long-term natural gas development.” However, the board members favored examining RFTA’s existing policies to assess if language should be added to make it clear that it doesn’t favor gas extraction from “sensitive” areas.

The transportation agency found itself debating energy issues after it decided in October to study whether it is feasible to run some of its buses off compressed natural gas.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said there are concerns among members of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) that RFTA’s direction could influence the debate over drilling on 221,490 acres stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort down to McClure Pass, west of Highway 133. The Thompson Divide area includes 88,100 acres in western Pitkin County. TDC is fighting to prevent the drilling.

“Some people might view us as a poster child for natural gas, and that might undermine their position,” Blankenship said.

The implication is, the Roaring Fork Valley would be hypocritical if it opposed gas drilling outside Carbondale at the same time it was fueling its public transportation system with natural gas.

RFTA board member and Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said the bus agency’s interest in using compressed natural gas shouldn’t be tied in any way to the Thompson Divide dispute. RFTA is pursuing the new fuel because it wants to reduce its carbon footprint.

“It’s much better using clean gas than oil or regular gas,” Newman said.

A memo that RFTA staff prepared for the board said compressed natural gas reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent compared to diesel engines. It is also cheaper than diesel fuel.

RFTA wants to use the cleaner fuel in 18 buses that will be its fleet for Bus Rapid Transit, an expansion that will add faster, direct service between Aspen and points downvalley. At a $1 per gallon savings, RFTA would save about $330,000 on fuel costs annually on its BRT fleet, the memo said.

Newman said RFTA well might become a poster agency for using clean fuel, and he would welcome the publicity. But that shouldn’t be construed to mean that RFTA condones drilling everywhere for natural gas, he said.

“I don’t believe we have to adopt a policy that ties us into the concerns of the Thompson Divide Coalition,” Newman said.

RFTA board member and Glenwood Springs Mayor Ted Edmonds said he doesn’t want to see drilling in Thompson Divide, but the debate is outside the scope of RFTA’s responsibilities.

Carbondale trustee and RFTA board member John Hoffman argued otherwise: Without public pressure, the energy industry will extract gas and oil as quickly and easily as possible, without regard to the environment, he said. Public interest pressures the government to regulate the action.

Therefore, Hoffman said, it was important for RFTA to declare that it wants natural gas extracted in ways that are as environmentally friendly as possible and that certain lands should be off limits. He said the proposed policy statement under review by RFTA was “light” but worthwhile because it sends a message.

“It’s impotent but it’s all we’ve got,” Hoffman said.

Pitkin County Commissioner and RFTA board chairman Michael Owsley also expressed a preference to approve some type of policy. For the Thompson Divide Coalition, “it’s heavily politicized” when RFTA moves in the direction of using compressed natural gas, he said.

RFTA must realize that everything it does has political implications for someone: “People think that by its nature, bus riding is a socialist activity,” he quipped.

Basalt Councilwoman and RFTA board member Jacque Whitsitt suggested that RFTA’s staff reassess existing policy statements and see if more specific language on energy issues is necessary. However, she said she favored avoiding taking a specific stand on Thompson Divide drilling. The board majority concurred.

Owsley said individual board members can weigh in on the topic if they so desire.

Dorothea Farris, an organizer of the Thompson Divide Coalition and former RFTA board member, said she hopes the board will state in a policy that it isn’t endorsing gas drilling on all lands even if it switches to compressed natural gas.