Andersen: Release the leases!
The Bureau of Land Management is a public agency. Yet it often serves the interests of a demanding master — industry. That master routinely deviates from the public interest, at least where local sensibilities prevail.
This servant/master relationship revealed itself recently when the BLM office in charge of Thompson Divide oil and gas leasing renewed a dubious set of leases that directly threaten Thompson Divide.
“BLM is playing us for fools on this April 1st,” stated Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. Hart reported to Wilderness Workshop’s membership on April 1 that oil and gas leases held by two energy companies have been extended by BLM, despite their illegality.
Adding insult to injury, Wilderness Workshop, which is a lead public-interest stakeholder on Thompson Divide, got word of BLM’s extension of the SG and Ursa leases in Thompson Divide through the industry grapevine.
“The fact that industry got advance notice from BLM and was able to craft an elaborate press release is just one more example of BLM putting industry before the public,” Hart wrote. The extensions, said Hart, made those leases valid for two more years, an act that surely is not in the local public interest.
“The agency’s decision was wrong last year and it’s wrong again,” Hart emphasized.
Hart charged that BLM has “overtly snubbed the public” by refusing to allow the bogus leases to naturally expire, something Wilderness Workshop has been strongly advocating.
“BLM continues to hold our community hostage,” Hart said. “This decision is just the latest move in BLM’s plan to engineer a situation that can only be resolved by the public footing the bill for their (BLM’s) mistakes.”
Preserving Thompson Divide from oil and gas drilling, and the road building that comes with it, has become a cause celebre centered mostly in Carbondale. In a show of community unity and force, ranching and business interests have joined forces with environmental groups to keep oil and gas drilling out of prime agricultural lands and roadless areas.
The Thompson Divide Coalition, which represents those interests, took a less strident tone, explaining that the extended leases are safe from “any development activity and preserves the government’s ability to unilaterally void leases in the future.”
This assumes that the BLM and the Forest Service will choose to void illegal leases on lands deemed sacred by the local community.
BLM defended the extensions, saying it has begun a 30-day public scoping period that will be part of an environmental impact statement. The environmental impact statement, a major research document, will analyze 65 existing oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest.
What’s at stake is a vast, mountainous region of 220,000 acres relatively untouched by extractive industries. Thompson Divide provides pristine headwaters for numerous tributaries to the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers. It also holds large roadless areas, many well suited as potential designated wilderness.
While it has been tarnished for extending the leases, the BLM has scheduled public meetings to hear local concerns. Those concerns are already well known, but the formality of the meetings may lead to voiding errant leases and protecting Thompson Divide.
“The BLM’s decision to extend the Thompson Divide leases for an additional two years was not only wrong but was made in the face of massive public support for letting the leases expire,” Wilderness Workshop Conservation Director Will Roush said.
While the Thompson Divide Coalition and Wilderness Workshop are the most vocal advocates for retiring the leases and keeping oil and gas wells out of pristine lands, it is up to the public to speak in favor of conservation over drilling and road building.
“Now that they’ve begun the process that can and should cancel those leases,” Roush said, “I’m sure the public message will be very clear: Just void the leases.”
Carbondale has been united on this in the past. That show of unity must again rally critical support.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.