BLM takes big step to canceling Thompson Divide leases
A much-anticipated Bureau of Land Management decision Friday to move forward with plans to cancel 25 previously issued but never-developed oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide region met with the usual praise from conservation groups and industry criticism.
The BLM formally released its final environmental impact statement for its review of 65 existing leases on the White River National Forest that were issued over the past 20 years.
The preferred alternative in the document lays a path to cancel the controversial Divide leases that cover a swath of land stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort southwest of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass south of Carbondale.
It’s a huge victory for the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been fighting for years to protect the higher-elevation eastern fringe of the natural gas-rich Piceance Basin from drilling.
“This is a very gratifying moment for me, my family, and our entire community,” Jason Sewell, board president for the TDC, said in a statement issued by the coalition made up of ranchers, outfitters, outdoors groups and conservation interests that has sought to preserve the area.
“For nearly a decade, we’ve worked to protect these lands and the livelihoods they support,” he said. “BLM’s decision makes it clear that overwhelming public support can and should make a difference.”
The preferred alternative is consistent with the BLM’s earlier-stated intention to cancel the Thompson Divide leases. The final EIS will be open for a 30-day public comment period starting Aug. 5, and a final decision is expected this fall, the BLM said.
Industry groups have indicated that they will likely challenge any lease cancellations in court.
Other groups said the BLM didn’t go far enough in extending protections to other parts of the forest.
“Canceling 25 leases in the Divide is something to celebrate, indeed,” said Peter Hart, conservation analyst and attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, also based in Carbondale.
“If this is the agency’s grand compromise, it falls short by failing to ensure even the minimum necessary protections for important public land values across all of the areas that were illegally leased.”
Under the plan, the BLM would also apply new stipulations to 13 other undeveloped leases farther west on the forest, including restrictions on surface facilities and new roads. The remaining leases, including some that are already developed, would continue.
“The BLM’s proposed action strikes the right balance in land management,” BLM Colorado State Director Ruth Welch said in a news release. “It respects last year’s decision by the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the character of the White River National Forest while also facilitating oil and gas development.”
White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams last year removed most of the Thompson Divide area from new leasing under the 20-year forest oil and gas leasing management plan.
The BLM decided to do a retroactive review of the 65 leases, including 40 located farther west on the White River Forest toward De Beque, because of a failure to adopt a 1993 Forest Service environmental review or to do its own review before the leases were issued between 1995 and 2012.
During the BLM review, thousands of comments were submitted by area residents, organizations and local governments urging the BLM to cancel the Thompson Divide leases, arguing they were issued illegally in the first place.
The decision to release the EIS comes despite a recent effort by industry and some members of Congress to reopen the review for new public comment, in light of a U.S. Geological Survey study showing a much higher estimate than previously thought of natural gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.
“The decision to cancel natural gas leases retroactively is beneath the U.S. government,” said David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“It’s in our collective best interest to continue challenging the decision to demonstrate our belief in the value of fairness and protection under the law,” he said. “While additional administrative appeals are important and necessary, we continue viewing the legal and justice system as the best hope for ultimately restoring confidence in the integrity of BLM and their willingness to honor their commitments.”
A spokesman for Ursa Resources, which holds seven of the Thompson Divide leases, was more reserved in his reaction to the BLM’s proposed action and said it came as no surprise.
“We’ve been prepared for this for a while,” said Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa Resources. “We will look at the document and evaluate our position, and if we have any comment we will make it by Sept. 4.”
As for any legal challenges, Simpson said Ursa individually has not had those discussions. The other 18 Thompson Divide leases are held by SG Interests. SG spokesman Robbie Guinn did not return a phone call seeking comment.
If the leases are canceled, the BLM would have to negotiate with the lease holders for repayment of any financial losses.
The BLM’s plan to go forward with the lease cancellations and stipulations on the other leases drew praise from statewide groups ranging from Conservation Colorado to Trout Unlimited. Pitkin County commissioners, who have also taken a position in favor of canceling the Divide leases, also weighed in.
“We’ve worked very hard to support the cancellation of these leases and we will keep a close eye on the process until the decision is final,” Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Rachel Richards said. “The preferred alternative reflects a uniquely balanced approach to land management that accommodates various and often incompatible uses and demands on federal lands.”
The final EIS can be found online at: http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo.