Oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs should be viewed separately from the majority of the 65 existing leases stretching west across the White River National Forest that are being reviewed by federal land managers, Garfield County commissioners said Monday.
In submitting formal comments to the Bureau of Land Management before it begins an environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis of the leases, the county requests a “distinct alternative” within the study dealing with the 25 Thompson Divide leases.
Those leases present “significant political, legal, cultural, environmental, socioeconomic and community-preference differences,” compared with the other 40 leases that dot parts of Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, the commissioners acknowledged.
“Primary differences between leases within the undeveloped Thompson Divide area and leases in other areas are that those leases are adjacent to existing natural gas production with existing adequate site access and exploration and production infrastructure,” the county said in a letter addressed to BLM area Field Manager Steve Bennett in advance of a Friday deadline for comments on the scope of the study.
The broader lease review was prompted by an Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling on neighboring Pitkin County’s challenge to three Thompson Divide leases that it argued were illegally issued.
The Land Board said the original leasing analysis, contained in a 1993 U.S. Forest Service EIS, was deficient because the BLM never adopted it or conducted its own analysis. The BLM responded by saying it would review all of the leases issued under that EIS, including a handful that are already in production and others tied to leasing units outside the study area.
The result could be a decision to cancel, modify or leave intact any or all of the leases included in the new study.
That’s of particular concern to Garfield County, the commissioners emphasized in their comments to the BLM.
“Decisions to place stipulations or perhaps cancel those leases have the potential to significantly harm vast tracts of developable mineral acreage well in excess of the 65 leases being evaluated in this EIS,” the county’s letter contends, also asking that the BLM include a socioeconomic analysis to determine the impact of canceling existing leases, especially on taxing districts that are dependent on energy development.
In their comments, though, the Garfield commissioners also restated the county’s support for the Thompson Divide Coalition’s efforts to explore a legislative remedy or other means to work with leaseholders to protect the pristine area from energy development.
“That is an area that deserves to be looked at for preservation,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said, pointing to a 2010 county resolution that’s still on the books and stands as the county’s support for the coalition’s efforts.
And, “If [development] happens in that area, it needs to be done in a responsible manner,” he said.
Coalition Executive Director Zane Kessler applauded the commission for restating its support for the group’s efforts.
“We are supportive of the comments being [submitted] by Garfield County,” said Kessler, who attended Monday’s commission meeting. “The BLM’s proposed analysis has a lot of apples and oranges when it comes to these different leases. It is important to spell out those very significant differences.”
Glenwood Springs City Councilman Matt Steckler also applauded the commissioners for restating their opposition to the use of Four Mile Road through Glenwood Springs to Highway 82 as a haul route should the Thompson Divide leases be developed.
“The impacts to Four Mile and to the city of Glenwood Springs are very significant if that were to occur,” Steckler said, adding that the city’s tourism economy is its “lifeblood,” and that heavy oil and gas traffic running through Glenwood would harm that.
Also this week, Glenwood’s council, along the Carbondale town council, are expected to adopt EIS comments prepared by Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Chris Seldin.
The joint Pitkin-Carbondale-Glenwood letter makes its own case for considering the Thompson Divide leases separately from the remaining 40 gas leases.
“The leases at issue in the Thompson Divide are undeveloped, and the leased lands therefore remain in their pristine state, unchanged since the BLM issued the leases in 2003,” the draft statement declares. “Oil and gas development in the Divide would curtail or eliminate many of the ranching and recreational uses giving rise to the economic benefits.”
At the Monday commissioners’ meeting, Carbondale resident and gas industry critic Richard Vottero issued an impassioned plea to protect the Thompson Divide from energy development.
“We are on a leap of faith here with natural gas, and we must transition from the fossil fuel age,” Vottero said. “We have the ability to guide ourselves from the old way to the new way, and we’re making mistakes with the essential elements of life, which are air, water and land.”