Editorial: No victory laps on Thompson Divide | PostIndependent.com

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Editorial: No victory laps on Thompson Divide

We wish that this month’s Interior Department decision on Thompson Divide natural gas development could be the final word on the contentious issue, but clearly it is not.

Now, against a backdrop of uncertainty under the incoming Trump administration and Congress fully under Republican, pro-drilling control, we appear destined to enter a period of litigation and in-your-face efforts to develop remaining leases in the area.

While we like to envision a day when America gets its energy from renewable sources above the ground, we are realistic about how soon that might happen, we support the employment and we support natural gas development as a cleaner alternative than coal for electricity generation, among its many other uses.

We also are more convinced than ever that natural gas reserves are ample and can be reached from lands other than the Thompson Divide, and drilling should not occur there.

In case readers need to catch up on this, on Nov. 17, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze and Gov. John Hickenlooper announced at the Capitol in Denver that the BLM was canceling 25 disputed leases in the Divide, which is south and west of Glenwood Springs. The announcement made formal the BLM’s preferred alternative in its environmental impact statement issued in July.

This will be the source of litigation. The BLM proposes to reimburse a total of about $1 million to SG Interests and Ursa Resources, which it says represents the amount paid at auction for the leases more than a dozen years ago.

Ursa is studying its options, and SG said it will seek damages above and beyond that amount to recoup investment and lost potential profits.

The BLM left in place 40 other leases farther west that were part of the review. As the PI’s John Stroud reported, Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop is considering whether to pursue action to block development of those leases, though some already are in production.

More controversy is in store regarding leases in Thompson Divide’s Wolf Creek Storage Unit, an area drilled in the 1950s and ’60s and now used to store gas for Black Hills Energy, which early this year completed its acquisition of SourceGas and serves 93,000 Colorado customers. Those leases were not included in the BLM review.

SG, which holds 11 Wolf Creek leases, on the same day as the Jewell announcement applied with the BLM for a drilling permit for a test well there. If the well is approved and proves successful, SG would look to fully develop its Wolf Creek leases, a company official told Stroud.

We’re disappointed in SG’s move because it calls for using Glenwood Springs streets and Four Mile Road to haul water and equipment to the site. Both Glenwood Springs and pro-gas Garfield County oppose the haul route because the roads aren’t up to snuff for industrial traffic.

David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said if full development is planned, access concerns can be addressed through “compromise, common sense and commitment.”

But it doesn’t sound like the company is interested in compromise, just an assertion of the right to drill.

It ignores both local governments’ concerns, threatens them with added costs and blows off the significant community sentiment against drilling in the Divide.

At the same time, the Denver news conference with Jewell, Kornze and Hickenlooper wasn’t exactly an olive branch to the industry. It was more of a victory lap, ill-advised and oddly timed, particularly given the results of the election and the still-touchy nature of the Thompson Divide.

A quiet news release would have been more appropriate, but we also think that if these leaders thought an announcement was really important, it was rude to the Western Slope to hold it in Denver. Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman says schedules just didn’t permit travel to Garfield County, but the battle, its impact and the passion behind it were focused here. Inconvenient or not, if a news conference needed to be held, it should have been here.

It played to the Democrats’ urban constituency without regard to how it would play locally.

As things stand, the announcement stuck it to natural gas developers, SG Interests is sticking it to development foes and the fight, sadly, goes on, just in a new iteration.

Editor’s note: This editorial originally was too narrow in describing natural gas uses. This sentence has been edited to acknowledge that omission: “… we support the employment and we support natural gas development as a cleaner alternative than coal for electricity generation, among its many other uses.”