Thompson Divide voices loud at BLM meeting
December 14, 2015
Those wanting to keep gas drilling out of the Thompson Divide region urged Bureau of Land Management officials Monday to follow through on a proposed action that would cancel most of the existing leases in the area.
The first of three meetings hosted by the BLM this week to explain the proposal and collect oral comments was heavily attended by supporters of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition.
Most backed an agency alternative that would cancel 18 leases and modify seven others in the area stretching south of Glenwood Springs toward McClure Pass and west to the Divide Creek drainage.
Others said all 65 existing leases that were analyzed in a new draft environmental impact statement should be canceled, as one alternative suggests. No one spoke in favor of maintaining all the leases, modified or otherwise.
Additional meetings take place from 4-7 p.m. today at DeBeque Elementary School and Wednesday at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.
"I was witness to what happened in western Garfield County, both on private and public land, and the lack of planning in that area was unconscionable," Cattle Creek-area resident Louis Meyer said at the Glenwood meeting, referring to the natural gas drilling boom in the early to mid-2000s.
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"In today's world, you just can't do that," Meyer said in support of canceling leases in the areas that stand to be most impacted, and properly planning for the development of any leases that are allowed to continue.
Jim Hawkins, who owns the Four Mile Bed & Breakfast with his wife Sharill, said their very livelihood stands to be impacted if leases in the Thompson Divide are developed and Four Mile Road is used as a haul route for heavy equipment.
"From a very personal standpoint … it means we're out of business," he said.
The BLM is in the middle of a formal public comment period for the draft EIS that was released last month. The comment period ends Jan. 8.
The analysis revisits leases located on the White River National Forest, which the Interior Board of Land Appeals determined in 2007 had not been adequately reviewed by the BLM before they were issued between 1995 and 2004.
While the Forest Service determines what federal lands can be leased for oil and gas extraction, the BLM manages the actual leases.
Although the BLM proposes to cancel or modify the 25 Thompson Divide-area leases held by energy companies Ursa Resources and SG Interests. The other 40 leases, located in an area stretching west toward DeBeque, would remain valid under the plan.
The rationale behind the proposal closely mirrors a separate decision finalized earlier this month by WRNF Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams closing the Thompson Divide area to new leasing for the next two decades.
The new forest oil and gas leasing plan, which determined based largely on local citizen input that the Thompson Divide area has special qualities worth protecting from drilling, was used "as much as possible" in arriving at the BLM's proposal to cancel the existing leases, BLM spokesman David Boyd said at the meeting.
"Canceling leases is not something we do lightly, but we do have the authority to do it," Boyd said, adding that judicial action would be required in order to cancel any leases that are producing.
Some of the leases under review, primarily on the west end of the study area, are in production.
Two Pitkin County commissioners said the BLM proposal is in keeping with the values of local residents who want to see the Thompson Divide area preserved. Most of the leases proposed to be canceled are located in Pitkin County.
"This proposed action shows a preference for allowing local communities to work (in collaboration) to determine their own futures," Commissioner George Newman said.
Others spoke to the recreational and tourism value of the forest lands that surround local communities such as Carbondale and Basalt.
"Places like the Thompson Divide are why we have chosen to raise a family here," said Basalt resident Karin Teague.
Matt Hamilton, executive director for the Aspen Skiing Co.'s Environment Foundation, said the 1,800 member employees consistently cite the Thompson Divide as an area worth protecting.
"This area is critically important to our company and to our employees, as well as for ranchers, hunters, mountain bikers, anglers," Hamilton said.
The BLM proposal "aligns with those tourism-based values," he said.
Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa Resources, attended the Monday meeting but did not provide formal comment.
Simpson told the Post Independent that the company is preparing a formal written comment to submit by the deadline.
"Of course, we don't agree with the proposal, and we view it as a taking of that mineral right," he said, comparing the proposed action to revoking a ski area lease on federal land.
Energy companies and industry groups have blasted the BLM process to re-evaluate the leases, saying the proposed decision was politically motivated and predetermined.
The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Mesa County commissioners have said they plan to boycott today's BLM meeting in DeBeque.
During the initial scoping process for the analysis in early 2014, dozens of oil and gas workers attended a similar BLM meeting in DeBeque urging the agency not to cancel any leases. Scoping meetings in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale were dominated by those wanting to see the Thompson Divide leases canceled.