A new environmental analysis being undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management to review oil and gas leases issued on the White River National Forest south of the Colorado River over the past two decades extends well beyond the embattled Thompson Divide area.
The BLM announced on Tuesday that it plans to analyze a total of 65 leases issued under a 1993 U.S. Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals determined to be deficient.
That review will include 25 leases held by two energy companies, SG Interests and Ursa Resources Group, within the 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs.
Those leases were scheduled to expire on Tuesday after a one-year extension, but the BLM extended them for another two years so that they could be included in the new EIS, said area BLM spokesman David Boyd.
“Both companies have pending development proposals that will not be analyzed by the Forest Service and BLM until this EIS is completed,” the BLM said in a news release. “Continuing the suspension of the leases prevents any development activity and pauses the 10-year deadline leaseholders have to begin developing their leases.”
The other 40 leases included in the review involve holdings by a dozen different companies stretching across some 40 miles of national forest lands, extending from the Thompson Divide region on the east to a group of leases situated southeast of De Beque, Boyd said.
Eight of the leases now under review have producing gas wells on them, he said.
“That is something we will have to look at through this EIS,” Boyd said. “There is a precedence for canceling leases, if we find that they were issued in error. But I am not aware of that occurring on leases that are producing.
“Within this EIS, we are looking at that possibility,” he said.
The BLM on Tuesday opened a 30-day public scoping period during which it will determine what issues and concerns should be addressed in a new EIS. Three public meetings have been scheduled later this month in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen to gather public input before the EIS begins.
“Public involvement is a critical piece of this analysis, and we will consider a wide range of alternatives, which will be made available for public review and comment when drafted,” BLM Colorado River Valley Field Office Manager Steve Bennett said in the news release.
The BLM expects to release a draft of the EIS and alternatives for public review in early 2015, he said.
David Ludlam, spokesman for the industry group West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said that reopening leases that have already been issued, and especially leases that are producing, sets a dangerous precedent.
“The BLM proposes possibly canceling leases that include existing natural gas production and/or invalidating and altering existing lease rights,” Ludlam said.
“Trade associations, companies and other commercial users of public lands nationwide will be watching this decision that could fundamentally erode the sanctity of contracts between commercial users of public lands and the federal agencies tasked with guarding that sanctity,” he said.
However, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which was among those opposing the Thompson Divide lease extensions, said the leases that have come under question should be voided altogether.
“The BLM has known for years that these leases were issued illegally,” Wilderness Workshop staff attorney Peter Hart said Tuesday. “The agency publicly admitted it a year ago, and now they’re finally making the first step to rectify it.”
Hart also noted that the BLM in 2009 declared a different set of leases issued under the same circumstances were invalid from the start and voided them.
“That’s exactly what the agency should do again in this case — just void the illegal leases,” Hart said.
At the same, the new EIS offers an opportunity for the public to continue voicing its opposition to leases in the Thompson Divide and any other areas where they may have been issued illegally in the first place, said Will Roush, conservation director for the Wilderness Workshop.
“Now that they’ve begun the process that can and should cancel those leases, I’m sure the public message will be very clear: Just void the leases,” Roush said.
The BLM said it is conducting the new EIS to address “deficiencies” in the existing environmental analyses for these leases.
While it’s up to the U.S. Forest Service to determine which of its lands are available for oil and gas leasing and the agency did the initial environmental analysis, the BLM must either formally adopt the Forest Service analysis or perform its own analysis, according to the BLM release.
“The BLM did not formally adopt the Forest Service analysis and is performing its own analysis of these 65 leases through this EIS,” the agency clarified.
Both SG Interests and Ursa have development and lease unitization proposals pending before the BLM, which led in part to the decision Monday to extend their Thompson Divide leases, according to the BLM.
The scoping comment period will remain open until May 6.