Guest column: Proposal for Thompson Divide falls short

Rachel Richards
Guest column
Rachel Richards

Editor’s note: This letter was originally sent to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

Pitkin County has long been engaged in efforts to permanently protect the Thompson Divide region within Pitkin County from the detrimental impacts of natural-gas exploration and extraction and associated road and pipeline construction.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado River Valley Field Office has recognized that the leases within Pitkin County, with the exception of the Wolf Creek storage field, were issued without compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act. In response, the BLM has proposed a preferred alternative to be implemented by a curative NEPA process. The preferred alternative anticipates the cancellation of 25 gas leases within or partially within Pitkin County as well as adjacent portions of Garfield County, which would protect, although not permanently, the Thompson Divide area within Pitkin and Garfield counties as well as the communities of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs from the impacts of gas-field development. The action to be taken by the BLM would balance the needs of natural-gas production with preserving areas of sensitive environmental quality utilized by recreationalists, hunters and ranchers.

The timing of Congressman Scott Tipton’s proposed legislation is confusing considering the progress to date of the BLM on its curative NEPA process and the equities presented by the BLM’s proposed preferred alternative action.

The proposed legislation would not increase the benefits afforded to the affected communities in protection of the Thompson Divide region beyond what would be conferred through the BLM environmental-review process other than to offer the current lessees, two corporate entities, an extraordinary windfall by giving significantly more valuable leased acreage than they currently have. Efforts by the BLM toward a balanced solution to environmental preservation and resource development would be rendered moot.

There are several inadequacies and inequities of the proposed legislation. Rather than potential cancellation of their leases, the two lessees would be granted new leaseholds in other areas of Colorado. Even without the proposed cancellation, the current leases, which have been held in excess of their original 10-year terms with no appreciable action taken toward development, would very probably expire by their own terms before any work could be undertaken. Now, new 10-year leaseholds, which when combined with the original lease terms would be in excess of 20 years, would be afforded to the lessees without the burden of doing any work to develop the leases as required by the BLM.

The new leases contemplated in the legislation would be located within areas of known production with proven quantities, unlike the current leases, which represent a greater risk to the lessees given the relative lack of production data available.

The new leases would be, by act of Congress, exempt from the typical associated environmental review and imposition of appropriate conditions required by the BLM prior to gas-field development. This is a betrayal of the public’s expectation that gas-field development will happen only in a safe and conscientious manner. These exemptions are particularly ironic in that the current leases were issued illegally, as recognized by the BLM, for failure to comply with the very same federal legal requirements the legislation proposes to bypass. Finally, the proposed exchange most assuredly would not require any payment from the lessees to the federal government to reflect the increased value of their position, as the methodology for appraisal would not be the accepted Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice as employed by the BLM.

Notably absent from the proposed legislation are any of the provisions previously pursued by Sen. Michael Bennet in attempts to appropriately fashion a lease exchange. Particularly, there is no permanent protection or withdrawal of the leased areas from future leasing, virtually ensuring that our communities would once again be confronted by the same development pressures and need to fight to protect Thompson Divide. The proposed legislation does not consider the new host communities’ desires to protect their agricultural heritage or quality of life in the North Fork Valley from the same detrimental impacts that we here in the Roaring Fork Valley have sought to protect ourselves. The legislation would simply shift to another community the negative impacts of resource development without appropriate environmental review.

The proposed legislation would allow a lease exchange in the area of Thompson Divide known as Wolf Creek. However, in order not to affect the function of the storage field, these leases would not be canceled but rather made available to a municipality or other entity capable of holding operating leaseholds. The terms of such a transfer are not realistically probable, as any such municipality or entity would be subject to the whims of the current lessees for the terms of such a transfer.

The proposed legislation concludes with the removal of the most fundamental level of scrutiny of drilling and extraction practices. It is unclear why such a provision is contained in the proposed legislation other than to further the benefits of avoidance of environmental regulations to these two lessees and perhaps to other lessees in other areas of the United States.

As a consequence of the inclusions and omissions of the proposed legislation, Pitkin County cannot support its adoption.

Rachel Richards is chairwoman of the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners.