The Bureau of Land Management’s conclusion that it must conduct its own analysis of dozens of existing oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest is not supported by the BLM’s long-stated position on the matter, according to the two energy companies with the most skin in the game regarding the embattled Thompson Divide area.
“The BLM and the Forest Service repeatedly recognized the validity of the leases and even development of the leases and the underlying NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] analysis in administrative protest actions and before the court,” SG Interests and Ursa Resources argue in joint comments submitted to the BLM. The bureau is about to embark on a new analysis to determine whether to void, reaffirm or modify some or all of 65 forest leases under review.
The energy companies said the BLM position was restated time and again even after a 2007 Interior Board of Land Appeals ruling in favor of a Pitkin County challenge to three leases within the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale that the county said were issued illegally in 2004.
The BLM now has used that ruling, in part, as a basis for its decision to review not only the 25 Thompson Divide leases held by SG Interests and Ursa, but an additional 40 leases issued under a 1993 U.S. Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in a much larger area stretching west to De Beque.
The Forest Service analysis was never adopted by the BLM, nor did the agency conduct its own analysis at the time. That was one of the deficiencies noted by the Board of Land Appeals in more recent lease appeals. As a result, the BLM is now preparing to conduct its own analysis of the leases.
In the meantime, both Ursa and SG have invested “substantial resources” in acquiring and developing what they believed to be valid oil and gas leases, both within the Thompson Divide area and in other parts of the White River National Forest where leases are being reviewed, the companies maintain in a 15-page letter submitted by the BLM’s Friday deadline for comments on what should be the scope of the BLM study.
“The BLM and the Forest Service have repeatedly recognized in the years following the Pitkin County decision that leases subject to the White River EIS are valid,” their letter states.
Both agencies have also approved oil and gas drilling activities on some of the leases now being called into question, “and oil and gas companies owning the leases have invested millions of dollars to develop the leases based … on the agencies’ confirmation that the leases are valid.”
Comments from various energy companies that hold leases in the study area, as well as various industry trade groups, are among the roughly 24,000 comments submitted electronically to the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office.
Several local governments and citizen groups have also weighed in. Some, including the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition and the governing boards of Pitkin County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, are calling on the BLM to cancel just the Thompson Divide leases.
Garfield County commissioners have also asked the BLM to consider the leases in the largely undeveloped Thompson Divide region separately from leases in the other forest areas, which are already subject to energy development.
A coalition of local, state and regional conservation groups, on the other had, claim all of the leases under review were issued illegally and should be canceled.
BLM spokesman David Boyd said it’s not uncommon for high profile NEPA reviews to garner “tens of thousands” of comments, even at the scoping stage.
“It’s called scoping because, at this stage, we’re looking at the scope of issues and concerns that the public wants us to address,” Boyd said. “The comments are helpful in helping us to craft the detailed alternatives, each of which will include an environmental and economic impact analysis.”
The new study is expected to take about two years to complete, with a draft EIS and preferred alternative expected to be issued by summer 2015, followed by a final record of decision the following year, Boyd said.
“The BLM and the Forest Service have repeatedly recognized in the years following the Pitkin County decision that leases subject to the White River EIS are valid.”
joint letter to BLM from SG Interests and Ursa Resources