Senators seek delay of Thompson Divide gas decision | AspenTimes.com

Senators seek delay of Thompson Divide gas decision

John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – Colorado’s two U.S. senators want federal land managers to delay making a decision about controversial oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area, to provide more time for talks among the parties in the dispute.

Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats from Colorado’s Front Range, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday about a unitization request concerning roughly 32,000 acres in the Thompson Divide region.

The senators have asked that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency within the Department of Interior that is reviewing the request, “allow for robust and meaningful discussions among all concerned stakeholders” before deciding whether to designate the area as a single unit for gas exploration purposes.

The move has encouraged local residents trying to preserve the Thompson Divide area from energy development, but upset an energy company that wants the decision made quickly.

“I’m not pleased with politicizing the unitization process,” said Robbie Guinn, a vice president with SG Interests, the company making the unitization request.

According to Bennet spokesman Michael Amodeo, the two senators are basing their request on a section of federal codes governing use of public lands, which states that a unitization agreement must be “necessary or advisable in the public interest.”

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In writing to the two cabinet members, Amodeo said, “We’re appealing to that particular consideration, that it be in the public interest,” as gauged by public hearings or public comment periods.

The unitization request from SG Interests, a Texas-based drilling company, would lump together a reported total of 16 leases into one holding.

According to officials with the BLM, unitization allows a company to drill one test well anywhere in the unit.

It also allows an operator, in order to get to all the gas beneath the surface, to drill additional wells in other locations within the unit, and obtain permit extensions more easily than if the company’s leases were all being developed individually.

A unitization decision usually is an administrative matter with little room for public input into the process, according to David Boyd, a spokesman for the BLM.

A Carbondale-based organization, the Thompson Divide Coalition, is opposing the unitization request, arguing that the benefits of gas production are outweighed by the benefits of keeping the area relatively pristine for such uses as ranching, wildlife migration and recreation.

The TDC also believes the region must be protected for its role in providing clean drinking water for area residents.

“We really appreciate the action taken by Senators Udall and Bennet,” said TDC spokeswoman Clare Bastable on Thursday. “Delaying the action on unitization will allow us to have discussions with the leaseholders and the other stakeholders.”

She praised SG Interests as “approachable and willing to discuss their development program.”

“The coalition’s hope is that we can resolve this issue in a six-month to one-year time frame,” she added.

The chair of the TDC board, Dorothea Farris, said Thursday that she was happily surprised at how quickly the senators’ letter came out.

“Senator Bennet met with us last Sunday in Aspen, and less than a week later we have somebody doing something, and willing to help us,” she said.

But at SG Interests, the issue comes down to a distinction between the legal process and politics.

The BLM’s decision, Guinn said, should be “an administrative function, and it always has been exempted from NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act]. It’s not a public process.”

The public gets involved, he said, once the company applies for permits to drill.

SG Interests has held talks with the coalition, and will continue doing so, Guinn said. He noted that the company believed the talks were aimed at finding ways to allow the development to go forward in ways that the coalition finds acceptable.

Recent public comments and actions by the coalition, he said, indicate “they don’t want development in the entire 220,000 acres that they want to protect … land that has been managed as multi-use for years.”

Although some have questioned the economic value of the gas beneath the Thompson Divide area, Guinn said, “There’s a huge resource there. You can’t just take this type of resource out of the inventory.”

jcolson@postindependent.com