Hickenlooper supports Thompson bill | PostIndependent.com

Hickenlooper supports Thompson bill

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has thrown his support behind a bill to protect unleased portions of the controversial Thompson Divide region from oil and gas drilling, and to "retire" any leases that expire for lack of active exploration.

The move drew praise from opponents of oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide, and little comment from one of the companies with leases to drill in the area.

In a letter dated May 6, Hickenlooper wrote and thanked Sen. Michael Bennet, one of Colorado's two Democrat senators, for introducing the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act of 2013.

The aim of the bill is to protect roughly more than half of the 221,500 acres of backcountry terrain highly prized by ranchers, recreationists and communities that say they depend on the area for clean water.

According to the Thompson Divide Coalition, which is trying to keep oil and gas rigs out of the region, there already are approximately 105,000 acres of leases in place, although many leases are due to expire this year or next after a decade of inactivity by the leasing companies.

Industry officials have long contended that oil and gas interests can coexist with other uses of the BLM terrain, and are acting to preserve their rights to drill by extending the life of the leases.

But after Bennet called for public comment on his proposed bill in August 2012, it drew nearly 700 comments from area citizens, "99 percent of which were supportive of the measure," according to statements from the offices of Bennet and Hickenlooper.

"We support your legislation because it offers a fair approach to achieving enduring protection for a Colorado Crown Jewel," Hickenlooper wrote in his letter.

The governor pointed to a recent decision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to suspend the clock concerning looming expiration dates for existing oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide, while the leases undergo extensive federal review regarding their legality under federal regulations.

Given the controversy that has arisen over the BLM decision, Hickenlooper wrote, "The benefits of protecting unleased land in the Thompson Divide and ultimately retiring leases once they come back into federal ownership will be realized without threatening existing mineral rights."

The governor's letter drew immediate praise from the Thompson Divide Coalition, which for more than two years has worked to prevent drilling in the area.

Calling Bennet's bill "a middle-ground solution to preserve and protect the [area] from future development," coalition director Zane Kessler declared, "We're thrilled by Governor Hickenlooper's decision. He lends a critical and balanced voice to our broad coalition of supporters who believe the Thompson Divide is a special place that should be preserved and protected for the enjoyment of generations to come."

Don Simpson, a vice president with Ursa Resources Group and its subsidiary, Ursa Piceance Holdings LLC, which holds leases in Thompson Divide, said Hickenlooper's move is no surprise to his company.

"We knew what his stance was," said Simpson, explaining that he referred to Hickenlooper's earlier statements that he would be comfortable with little or no gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area.

Concerning Thompson Divide, he said, "Our deal is to work something out. Hopefully, we can get there, with the coalition, anyway."

jcolson@postindependent.com