GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - The debate over gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area, southwest of Glenwood Springs, became a full-fledged political football in 2012.
With a gas lease unitization request languishing at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Houston-based SG Interests filed applications in October, November and December to drill six wells on five sites, in order to beat 2013 gas lease expiration dates.
Months earlier, drilling opponents offered to buy out existing gas leases and backed proposed federal legislation to withdraw all other lands in Thompson Divide from future gas leasing.
Drilling opponents, led by the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC), argued that drilling would do lasting environmental and economic harm. Industry advocates countered that lease-holders have the right to drill, and said gas exploration can be done in environmentally acceptable ways.
The 221,500-acre Thompson Divide region stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass, and from the Crystal River west to Divide Creek, taking in eight watersheds and parts of Garfield, Pitkin, Mesa, Delta and Gunnison counties.
In January, the TDC sounded the first alarm about prospects that SG Interests might be looking at Four Mile Road as its main access route to drilling sites in Thompson Divide, raising grassroots opposition among Glenwood Springs residents.
And a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, Public Campaign, demanded that U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, return more than $8,000 in campaign contributions from SG Interests.
SG Interests, meanwhile, filed a request to "unitize" 18 of its gas leases in the Thompson Divide, which would combine the leases into a drilling unit and give the firm more time to develop its leases.
Opponents complained that unitization was a ploy to extend gas lease deadlines that will otherwise expire in 2013.
In late February, the TDC offered to pay more than $2.5 million for leases held by six different oil and gas companies, in return for the companies' agreement to call off their drilling plans for Thompson Divide.
But SG Interests said it and other companies had sunk considerably more money into its drilling plans beyond the lease payments, and rejected the TDC offer.
Over the course of 2012, city governments of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, as well as the Pitkin County commissioners, all opposed unitization and the general idea of drilling in the Thompson Divide.
In addition, those same governments endorsed proposed federal legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would withdraw from future leasing 183,000 acres of federal land in the Thompson Divide area. Existing leases would not be affected.
SG Interests land manager Eric Sanford argued at a public meeting in April that the unitization process was being improperly politicized in a way that could interfere with future efforts to develop natural gas resources here and elsewhere.
In August, Antero Resources filed its own unitization request for seven leases on nearly 12,000 acres in the area.
SG Interests, meanwhile, concluded that its unitization request might drag on past the lease expiration dates. Starting in October, the company filed for drilling permits in Four Mile Park near the Sunlight Mountain Resort ski area and further south in Pitkin County.
A Western Slope regional coalition of governments, the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, in September issued a statement favoring fewer restrictions on oil and gas development in the region and questioning the wisdom of Bennet's proposed legislation.
In October, the Garfield County commissioners publicly stated their opposition to the use of the Four Mile Road as a haul route for industry traffic.
The commissioners cited potential for damage to local roads, unacceptable industrial truck traffic on country roads as well as through Glenwood Springs, and possible harm to tourism and recreation interests.
In December, the Pitkin County Commissioners asked the U.S. Forest Service to close off the Thompson Divide to future leasing, and to allow all existing leases in the area to expire.
And a coalition of national and regional conservation groups called for a "no additional leasing" alternative for the White River National Forest, as part of the WRNF's ongoing update of its oil and gas development guidelines.