Thompson Divide leases canceled | AspenTimes.com

Thompson Divide leases canceled

Ryan Summerlin/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Land Management officials joined Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in the state capitol Thursday morning to announce final decisions on oil and gas development in western Colorado, including the Thompson Divide and Roan Plateau. (Photo by Bruce Finley/The Denver Post)

DENVER — Twenty-five undeveloped oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale are to be canceled, federal officials announced Thursday in west lobby of the state Capitol.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze were joined by Gov. John Hickenlooper for the announcement that the BLM will follow through on plans contained in a final environmental impact statement released earlier this year to cancel the long-disputed leases.

The formal record of decision addresses deficiencies in the original analyses of 65 oil and gas leases located on the White River National Forest straddling the Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa county lines stretching south and west of Glenwood Springs.

"Today's decision is a testament to the ability of individuals, businesses, governments and organizations in Colorado to work together to find solutions that make good sense for the local community, economy and environment," Jewell said during the press conference.

"This resolution strikes the right balance by protecting one of Colorado's most spectacular places and important watersheds, and ensuring that any future development is done responsibly and held to high standards," she said.

In addition to the canceled leases, 40 leases located farther west on the White River National Forest that were issued between 1995 and 2012 and were part of the retroactive BLM review will be allowed to continue.

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Thirteen of those leases that are also undeveloped will face new stipulations outlined in the 2015 White River National Forest oil and gas leasing plan restricting surface drilling and construction of new roads.

The other 27 leases, which are either producing or tied to leases under production through unitization, are to continue under the stipulations of the original 1993 leasing plan.

"This decision reflects the hard work of local governments, industry, engaged residents and our federal partners to reach a balanced solution," Hickenlooper said. "This is a resolution that protects the beautiful environment of the Thompson Divide, that acknowledges the investments companies have made in the area and lets people get back to business."

In July, the BLM announced its preferred alternative to cancel the contested leases in the Thompson Divide.

The Thompson Divide is a swath of land on the eastern fringe of the natural gas-rich Piceance Basin and stretches from Sunlight Mountain to McClure Pass.

Conservation groups have long argued that the leases were illegally issued as the BLM neither adopted a 1993 environmental review by the Forest Service nor did it conduct its own review.

The Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, farmers, recreation users, conservationists and local governments, has long fought to have the leases canceled and the area removed from future consideration for leasing.

"BLM has crafted a balanced solution for the Western Slope, and for the many communities, industries and local economies that rely on White River National Forest," Jason Sewell, a Carbondale rancher and TDC board members, said in a prepared statement. "This isn't a zero-sum outcome."

Added Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson, "We're pleased to see that this years-long process has reached a conservation-minded end. Our communities have spoken with a unified voice on this issue many times over the years, and it's good to know that BLM heard our concerns."

Still, oil and gas industry representatives have said they are likely to challenge the cancellation of any leases in court, and the recent election of Republican Donald Trump could also ultimately affect the outcome of any appeals.

Industry has also been emboldened by a new U.S. Geological Survey report estimating that the Piceance Basin contains about 40 times more natural gas than earlier estimated.

In making the announcement regarding the Thompson Divide and other 40 leases Thursday, the officials also issued the formal record of decision adopting terms of a 2014 settlement that resolved litigation over leases issued on the Roan Plateau west of Rifle.

There, the BLM agreed to cancel leases in the more pristine areas on top of the Roan, while allowing others that can be accessed via directional drilling from the base to continue.

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