A unanimous Glenwood Springs City Council agreed Thursday to sign onto neighboring Pitkin County’s letter asking the Bureau of Land Management to cancel 25 oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide, despite cautions from Garfield County Commission Chairman John Martin about possible fiscal implications should that happen.
“If the leases are withdrawn or canceled, it is a takings because there is a binding contract” between lease holders and the federal government, Martin told the council.
It’s an issue that may ultimately be decided in court, and damages could include requiring local governments that receive federal mineral lease money to refund any funds distributed from those leases, he said.
“However much was received is how much you are going to be made to pay back,” Martin said, adding that would likely be accomplished through the withholding of future lease funds rather than an actual refund.
That would impact the county’s special federal mineral lease district, which in turn makes grants to municipalities, fire districts and school districts in the county for various infrastructure projects and programs.
“You and the citizens are going to be paying that bill,” said Martin, who also noted that only three of the 25 Thompson Divide leases are in Garfield County.
City Council members said they’re willing to take the gamble, especially given the potential costs to Glenwood Springs’ tourism-based economy should the Thompson Divide leases eventually be developed and Four Mile Road and the city’s street network used as a heavy haul route to get to and from those gas wells.
“There is a time and a place for oil and gas development, and this is not it,” Councilman Todd Leahy said, acknowledging that the city has benefited from Garfield Federal Mineral Lease District grants.
“But the Thompson Divide is a very important area for this city in other ways, and I think it’s best if this activity is not up there,” Leahy said.
The joint letter, already approved by Pitkin County commissioners and the Carbondale Board of Trustees earlier this week, asks the BLM to cancel 25 leases located within the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs.
The leases are part of a broader agency review of 65 leases that stretch across the White River National Forest from the Thompson Divide region on the east to the De Beque area on the west.
All of the leases were issued under a 1993 U.S. Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which the BLM never adopted. The BLM is now preparing to conduct its own analysis of the leases to determine whether some or all should be voided, reaffirmed or modified with new terms.
Friday was the deadline for formal comments on the scope of the study from individuals, government agencies, conservation and industry groups. The BLM will use the comments to determine what issues and concerns to address in the new study, which is expected to take two years to complete.
As of midday Friday, area BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency had received nearly 24,000 written comments.
The joint Pitkin, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale statement is specific to the fate of the 25 leases that are contained within about 30,000 acres of the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide region.
“We are not talking about the leases in the other areas to the west,” said Chris Seldin, Pitkin County assistant attorney. “And we have seen a distinction drawn by others between the leases inside the divide and outside.”
Earlier this week, Garfield County commissioners submitted comments to the BLM questioning the need for the new environmental analysis, but also acknowledging that the Thompson Divide leases should be given special consideration apart from the other leases.
Garfield County did not specifically ask that those leases be canceled, as the letter adopted by the Glenwood Council does.
“The 1993 EIS did not envision the scope and scale of development we are now seeing on the Western Slope,” said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, which is seeking ways to work with lease holders to sell or otherwise retire their leases in the area.
Namely, many of the technological advances over the last 20 years, from horizontal drilling techniques that allow for multiple wells to be drilled from a single pad, to advances in hydraulic fracturing, were not analyzed in that study, he said.
“This is not an Aspen-led effort,” Kessler said of criticism from industry groups that the coalition is funded by rich Aspenites at the expense of industry jobs. “And our intent is not to weigh in on the areas outside the Thompson Divide.”
But Garfield Commissioner Martin said some of the Thompson Divide leases are linked to leases elsewhere in the study area through federal lease units. What happens to leases in one area could negatively impact the others, he said.
Instead of pushing for the leases to be canceled, Martin said it’s best for the coalition to work with lease holders and the BLM to transfer lease rights in exchange for the divide leases.