City signs follow-up appeal on Thompson Divide lease decision
April 21, 2014
Three Roaring Fork Valley governments are continuing their appeal of a Bureau of Land Management decision last month to extend several gas leases in the Thompson Divide area that were due to expire, even as the agency takes a new look at the original decision to issue the leases.
Area BLM Director Steve Bennett on March 31 agreed to "suspend," or extend, 25 leases held by SG Interests and Ursa Resources for another two years, against the wishes of conservation groups and elected officials from Pitkin County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
The leases are to be included in a retroactive Environmental Impact Statement that is now under way, which also takes a new look at 40 other existing leases located on U.S. Forest Service lands stretching from just southwest of Glenwood Springs to De Beque.
"The EIS process and the suspension question are different issues," said Chris Seldin, assistant Pitkin County attorney, who is prepared to file the new appeal on behalf of the three government entities.
"There are essentially two legal defects that we see with the continued existence of these Thompson Divide leases in particular," Seldin said.
"First, the BLM has essentially acknowledged that the leases were issued illegally back in 2003, by launching a new NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] process," he said. "Secondly, these companies did not diligently develop the leases during the [10-year] lease term.
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"These are independent and separate grounds for the leases to expire and therefore be retired," Seldin said.
A follow-up appeal letter addressed to Acting State BLM Director Ruth Welch requests that the BLM reconsider its decision to suspend the leases, arguing the agency did not adequately weigh the arguments made by the three government entities to void the leases.
Pitkin County commissioners have already signed the letter, and Glenwood Springs City Council also agreed unanimously at its April 17 meeting to sign it as well.
"I think it's important to hold the BLM's feet to the fire on this, to ensure they follow their own rules and procedures," Glenwood Springs Mayor Leo McKinney said. "They've effectively kind of ignored these three jurisdictions."
The Carbondale Board of Trustees was set to review the arguments contained in the 45-page letter tonight and consider adding Mayor Stacey Bernot's signature to the list.
Seldin said the renewed appeal will be made with the state director for now, but it could eventually go to the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C.
It was the Interior Board that identified several "deficiencies" in the original 1993 Forest Service EIS under which the leases were issued, prompting the new BLM review.
The BLM never adopted the Forest Service document and also did not do its own study prior to issuing the leases that are now in question.
The majority of the leases have not been developed, although eight of the leases under review — located on the west end of the study area near De Beque — are producing, local BLM spokesman David Boyd said during one of three public scoping meetings held in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen last week.
A fourth scoping meeting is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. May 1 in De Beque, and the public scoping period, which is meant to help the BLM determine what questions and concerns to address in the EIS, runs through May 16.
The BLM expects to release a draft EIS and preferred alternative in early 2015, with options including canceling, modifying or keeping the existing leases in place.
Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa in Denver, also spoke at the Glenwood Springs and Carbondale scoping meetings last week, and plans to be in De Beque next week.
"I think the arguments [about suspending the leases] have already been made, and I think it's clear what the answer is," Simpson said in response to the renewed appeal.
He also supported the BLM's decision to do a new EIS for the leases.
"I think it's always good to update these things to reflect the current environmental regulations and changes to oil and gas operations," Simpson said. "I don't believe it would have been appropriate to cancel the leases."
Simpson added that Ursa is already operating just a short distance to the west of the Thompson Divide area in remote eastern Mesa County.
"We already have 17 wells there, and have had no environmental or other adverse impacts from those operations," he said.
Applications for exploratory wells on Ursa's Thompson Divide leases call for using the same access route via East Divide Creek as it uses to access its other existing leases in the area, Simpson said.
SG Interests has proposed accessing its leases in the Thompson Divide via Four Mile Road through Glenwood Springs, which has been a major point of opposition for Glenwood-area residents who commented at last week's BLM meetings.