Roadless rule decision could affect drilling in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Roadless rule decision could affect drilling in Carbondale

CARBONDALE – Officials with a local environmental organization are hopeful that a decision by a federal appeals court will reduce chances that natural gas wells will be drilled in the Thompson Divide area west and southwest of Carbondale.

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, said the appellate court’s decision to uphold a national rule that prohibits building roads on 49 million acres of public forests and grasslands could alter the status of some gas leases in Thompson Divide.

“They aren’t in compliance with the Roadless Rule,” Shoemaker said of the leases, which allow road building.

The leases are potentially caught in a tangled web that was first woven a decade ago. Former President Clinton approved the national Roadless Rule shortly before he left office. It prohibited road building and commercial timber harvests in roadless areas. A federal judge in Wyoming rendered a decision in 2008 that blocked enforcement of the rule. Now the federal appeals court has overturned that decision and upheld the rule.

During the decade of confusion – during the gap in clear direction – the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold leases to SG Interests and other companies in the Thompson Divide area, 221,490 acres that sprawl from south of Glenwood Springs to south of McClure Pass, west of Highway 133. About 88,000 acres of the Thompson Divide area are in western Pitkin County.

SG Interests wants to lump 16 leases it owns and two others owned by another firm into one unit, then submit a drilling master plan for an area of roughly 32,000 acres. The BLM hasn’t yet ruled on the request. A citizens’ group called the Thompson Divide Coalition is opposed to the request.

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Wilderness Workshop contends that the sale of leases during the period of confusion must be “revisited,” Shoemaker said. The leases were sold under the assumption that the roadless rule didn’t apply. Now it’s been determined that it did apply. Therefore, Shoemaker said, Wilderness Workshop and its allies contend that the leases sold during that period must be invalidated or the conditions of their use must be changed to reflect no road building.

Peter Hart, an attorney with Wilderness Workshop, said his research indicates 13 of the 18 leases in the area where SG Interests wants one unit were sold during the gap period.

Wilderness Workshop will write a letter to the BLM next week outlining its position, according to Shoemaker.

If the BLM concurs that the roadless rule applies to those 13 leases, SG Interests should be given the opportunity to rescind the purchase, Shoemaker said, or given the chance to extract gas without building roads. The gas company would have to directional drill from outside the roadless boundary.

Shoemaker said Friday’s court ruling was “vindicating for us” because conservation groups always contended the roadless rule was extensively vetted. He said roadless lands are different from Wilderness lands because roadless allows activities such as snowmobiling, dirt bike riding and mountain biking. Wilderness prohibits all mechanized uses.

scondon@aspentimes.com