Comments from industry trade groups and numerous conservation organizations were among the roughly 24,000 submissions received by the Friday deadline regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s pending review of 65 oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest.
A coalition of a dozen state, regional and national energy trade associations said the prospect that the BLM could cancel or change existing leases has potentially far-reaching implications, according to a joint statement issued Friday by the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association and the Western Energy Alliance.
“These leases were purchased in good faith after the completion of forest planning and National Environmental Policy Act analysis, but BLM failed to perform one technical step,” according to a news release.
The BLM has said it is reviewing the leases because it failed to adopt a 1993 U.S. Forest Service analysis under which the leases were issued.
“Rather than simply correcting that technicality, BLM is going back to the drawing board and potentially changing the rules several years after the leases were sold and issued,” the trade groups said.
That sets a dangerous precedent, said David Ludlam, executive director of West Slope COGA.
“Trade associations from all across the nation recognize that this isn’t just about a handful of leases in western Colorado,” Ludlam said. “This is a barometer on whether a leaseholder can reasonably expect the regulatory certainty necessary to invest on federal lands in the future.”
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said in the release that certain “elite interests” have prompted the BLM to revisit the leases at the expense of jobs and economic growth.
“We see around Colorado how groups financed by wealthy interests are trying to agitate local communities against an industry made up of hundreds of small businesses and thousands of working men and women,” she said.
“Oil and natural gas development is conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner that protects the air, water and land while co-existing with agriculture, outdoor recreation and other land uses,” Sgamma added.
However, a coalition of conservation groups led by Denver-based Earthjustice said in their own news release coinciding with the Friday comment deadline that the leases were issued improperly in the first place, in violation of federal law.
“This is about more than just the Thompson Divide,” said Scott Braden, wilderness advocate for Conservation Colorado, speaking to the 25 leases in the area southwest of Glenwood Springs that have been the primary focus for Pitkin County and other local government interests, as well as the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition.
Braden said the leases under review outside the Thompson Divide also affect several roadless areas in undisturbed lands that provide unique wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.
“The illegal leases could irreversibly damage several National Forest roadless areas that are important for wildlife and recreation,” he said. “Coloradans from across the state want these lands protected.”
The conservation groups are urging the BLM to consider canceling not just the Thompson Divide leases, but any leases that may have been improperly issued.
“The government made numerous mistakes in issuing these leases,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. “BLM has the authority and the duty to clean up its own mess, and the agency needs to consider canceling leases.”