Federal land managers are moving toward a preferred alternative that would appease conservationists by fully canceling 25 undeveloped oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide.
At the same time, leases that are considered “held by production” would be allowed to continue under the 1993 rules through which they were issued.
Other previously issued leases would be modified to follow new Forest Service stipulations that were finalized in 2015.
The new preliminary preferred alternative in the Bureau of Land Management’s review of 65 previously issued leases on the White River National Forest is a blend of two alternatives contained in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released last fall, BLM spokesman David Boyd said.
It was presented Wednesday at a meeting among cooperating agencies from Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa counties, and will be included in the final EIS that’s due out this summer, he said.
“BLM believes it strikes the appropriate balance by incorporating recent decisions by Forest Service while also recognizing considerations associated with producing leases,” Boyd said.
Under the latest plan, the agency would cancel in full the 25 undeveloped leases held by Ursa Resources and SG Interests in the Thompson Divide area, which stretches from Four Mile Park south of Glenwood Springs south to McClure Pass west to upper Divide Creek.
Another 23 developed or semi-developed leases located farther west, plus four expired leases that are under appeal, are deemed held by production, Boyd said.
They would be allowed to continue under the preferred alternative applying stipulations of the 1993 Forest Service decision.
The remaining 13 undeveloped leases would also be allowed to continue, but under the rules established by the White River National Forest in its 2015 decision for future oil and gas leasing.
Alternative 4, which the BLM had designated as its proposed action in the draft EIS, would have fully canceled 18 of the Thompson Divide leases and reduced the amount of acreage for seven others.
It also would have required the remaining 40 leases to come under the new leasing rules, to which industry groups and elected officials in Garfield and Mesa counties had objected.
Conservation groups said the alternative, if finalized, serves as an important step forward in protecting the largely undisturbed Thompson Divide region while dealing with troublesome leases that they have argued were illegally issued in the first place.
“This is an equitable approach that protects the Thompson Divide while upholding more prospective leases in the center of the Piceance Basin,” said Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition.
Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said the issues plaguing the leases have been unresolved for too long, and that the process to review them will benefit from a rapid conclusion.
“Those leases should have expired years ago, but were put on life support by BLM suspension decisions,” Hart said. “If BLM isn’t going to let those leases expire by their own terms, canceling the leases is the right decision.
Hart added that, while the latest BLM proposal ensures protection of the Thompson Divide, it’s also important to protect roadless values and other public land impacts associated with the leases that would be allowed to continue.
Industry groups, meanwhile, remain displeased with any outcome of the BLM review that would entail canceling leases.
David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, referred to a recent op-ed written by the BLM’s former regional director, James Cagney, condemning retroactive lease cancellations.
His “has become the latest in a host of voices publicly expressing concerns similar to ours,” Ludlam said. “My guess is many people within the BLM feel the same way as Mr. Cagney as they watch what is happening to the credibility of their agency.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he, too, cannot support a plan that cancels valid leases.
“Those leases are a private property right, and if you cancel them it leaves a lot of questions up in the air,” Jankovsky said.
County commissioners, on a 2-1 vote last month, sided with industry in pushing for the adoption of Alternative 2 in the draft EIS, which would allow all 65 leases to continue with only slight modifications due to inconsistencies with the original 1993 stipulations.
The county commissioners have instead backed a proposed lease exchange offered by Ursa and SG whereby the Thompson Divide leases would be traded for an equal amount of acreage in Mesa, Delta and Rio Blanco counties.
Pitkin County, along with the city of Glenwood Springs and town of Carbondale, have supported cancelation of the Thompson Divide leases outright, due to concerns about drilling impacts, including industry traffic on city streets.
“Our rural communities have expended significant time and effort to work with BLM in this process,” Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot said in a prepared statement issued by the TDC.
“We appreciate that the agency is listening to our concerns, and we urge them to move forward as soon as possible,” she said.
Will Perry, who owns private property in the Thompson Divide area, including mineral rights, also called the plan “a big step forward for our communities and for the men and women that rely on these public lands.”
“Folks from all walks of life have come together to urge the BLM to follow the Forest Service’s lead, and it sounds like those voices are being heard,” he said.
The vast majority of public comments when the EIS was being prepared supported cancelation of the divide-area leases, Kessler noted.
The BLM will now prepare its final EIS, which the agency expects to release in July. The document will be available for another 30-day review by the public at that time, Boyd said.