John Colson: The Thompson Divide fight has not ended
February 11, 2019
It appears that Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who represents Carbondale and other eastern portions of the county, has concluded that it is his job to help the oil and gas industry get around recent governmental efforts to keep gas drillers out of the controversial Thompson Divide area.
A recent news article pointed out Jankovsky's objection to a bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) that would, if passed, permanently withdraw the Thompson Divide area from consideration for future oil and gas leases, among other results.
As local readers know well, Thompson Divide, a region of more than 200,000 acres of relatively unspoiled backcountry in the White River National Forest, has been the subject of a protracted battle between the oil and gas industry and a broad array of groups and individuals hoping to prevent more drilling in the area.
In 2017, as part of this broader battle, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management canceled 18 leases in the Divide, following a legalistic wrangle that stretched all the way back into the 1990s and found that the federal government had failed to conduct the proper review of applications for permits to drill there.
At roughly the same time, the U.S. Forest Service put out a revised forest management plan that bars new leases in the area for the next 20 years, in a bureaucratic nod to the arguments of ranchers, recreationalists, environmentalists and others that the Divide is too precious to be abandoned to the drillers.
Bennet's bill, known as CORE (the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act), is an attempt to build on those earlier decisions and protect Thompson Divide from any drilling activity in the future.
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The fight to protect the Divide, spearheaded by a local organization known as the Thompson Divide Coalition with the support of the factions mentioned above as well as most municipal and county governments in the area, was based on an understanding that the Divide is a critical resource for all those uses as well as an important source of clean water for area residents.
I should point out that the Garfield County commissioners — Jankovsky, John Martin and Mike Samson — essentially have done all that they could to support the industry side of this fight, in opposition to the desires of many of their constituents.
I also must note that the fight was driven by a belief of some that the Divide does not contain very much in the way of profitable natural gas reserves, and that the industry's only reason for fighting to retain drilling rights was to forestall other, similar efforts to protect public lands in other parts of the West.
In any event, it might have seemed to observers that the fight was over and that the victory went to those working to keep the drillers out. But that would be a short-term view, because the oil and gas industry is somewhat like rust — it never sleeps.
And the drillers clearly feel that a 20-year wait really is of little consequence in the long haul, and that Garfield County and the state of Colorado would not get in the way of a resumption of drilling in the Divide unless local political priorities change fairly drastically in the coming two decades.
Jankovsky, speaking at a meeting recently, all but acknowledged the pro-industry bent of the Garfield Board of County Commissioners when he reportedly intoned, "I just feel like it was resolved, … and yet it seems like it's never enough. The environmental groups always want more."
Note the inclusion of a phrase guaranteed to raise the hackles of industry supporters worried about losing out on even marginally profitable drilling potential — "environmental groups." President Donald Trump, who loves to use divisive phraseology and negative labels to rile up his base, would have been proud of Jankovsky.
But, as was pointed out in a comment attached to the news story (in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent), it actually is the industry that is never satisfied and always wants more — more public lands to exploit, more rules and regulations twisted in its favor, more gas and oil to drill down for and guzzle up.
And while it is true that all three of the commissioners can be counted on for support of the industry, it is Jankovsky's remarks in the article that I feel are important here.
That's because Jankovsky, a Republican, only narrowly survived last year's elector challenge by Glenwood Springs resident Paula Stepp, a Democrat (by a margin of 51-48 percent, according to county data).
He might be feeling the heat as far as his political future is concerned, and he should be. Stepp has indicated she has not ruled out further electoral bids in her future, and Jankovsky might feel (as I certainly do) that if she runs against him again in four years, she might just topple him from the BOCC.
It's no secret why Jankovsky feels the way he does — the natural gas boom of the past decade or more has pumped cash into the coffers of Garfield County, a boon that he and his cohort on the BOCC would like to see continue, regardless of its impact on air and water quality in the region or the damaging increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that comes with the gas-drilling boom.
I suggest that Jankovsky, along with Martin and Samson, listen a bit more closely to their Carbondale constituency, and realize that they have little to lose and a lot to gain, in terms of political goodwill, by getting in line with the Bennet bill and the overall push to keep the Divide free of drilling rigs.
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