We don’t need to drill in Thompson Divide
September 4, 2014
The United States needs natural gas and other fossil fuels, at least for a few decades. Even folks who hate everything about fossil fuels have to acknowledge that, however grudgingly.
If we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, our economy and quality of life would collapse. Garfield County, free of debt and flush with reserves from gas royalties, would face a fiscal crisis.
But the country and the county don't need whatever gas might be in the Thompson Divide, and our region doesn't need to risk the real and sustainable jobs already supported by the area for the iffy promise of new work in a cyclical industry.
Nationally, we are in the midst of a natural gas boom, with talk of supplies for 100 years or more. The reserves being unlocked by advanced fracking techniques have flooded the market, suppressing prices and reducing gas employment in western Garfield County.
In that context, drilling in a marginal, costly, contentious area makes no sense. We have no reason to think, given the large gas fields being tapped elsewhere, that the Thompson Divide will become economical for drilling anytime soon.
But the divide already is valuable for agriculture and recreation, particularly hunting. Let's protect agriculture and enhance recreational uses and the jobs that go with them — jobs that would be threatened merely by the publicity that would accompany drilling.
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Because Thompson Divide leases were issued and extended by the Bureau of Land Management, though, arriving at a decision not to drill doesn't settle the matter. The BLM's current review of the leases could flatly rule out drilling, but the question of compensation would remain.
The leases confer a right on the companies that hold them, and the industry will die in the trenches asserting that holders must be compensated if those rights are to be relinquished.
We detect a growing, implicit acknowledgment that drilling is unlikely, an important acknowledgment that can move us toward a solution.
The evidence we see in this direction:
The pro-gas Garfield County commissioners urged the BLM to treat the Thompson Divide leases differently than others that are in the same review process.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who supports a legislative solution, leapt at a tentative deal over Roan Plateau leases as a possible template for a solution, and industry representative David Ludlam said he hoped that would prove to be the case.
"The Thompson Divide could and should end up under some type of similar settlements," Ludlam told the PI's John Stroud.
The situations have many differences, as Stroud reported Aug. 20. But, critically, the Roan deal holds out hope that "some pretty strange bedfellows" can go to the table and work toward a deal, as Thompson Divide Coalition director Zane Kessler put it.
The coalition has offered to buy out the leases, but the sides are far apart on money and are otherwise polarized.
Industry rhetoric about rich Aspenites being the money behind the coalition and not caring about working-class jobs is unhelpful.
The oil and gas industry has plenty of wealthy supporters, too, and hyperbole about uncaring rich folks is both disingenuous and simply invites charges that rich industry supporters don't care about common folks' health.
Here's a solution-oriented suggestion: Put the inflammatory crap on the shelf. It's neither going to help a settlement nor change any minds.
The industry really should want out of the leases and the controversy.
In addition to the uncertain production potential and the cost of developing any wells, the threat of litigation remains, even after the BLM review is complete.
Industry representatives complain that uncertainty, such as held up Roan Plateau activity for years, is bad for their industry and inhibits job creation.
Without legislation — and is anyone really betting on Congress to resolve this? — or a settlement, Thompson Divide will remain a contentious issue for years to come. That's a lose-lose for the industry and our region.
The sides need to resume talks.
The industry is going to have to be compensated. Yes, companies gambled. But they gambled on the resource potential, not whether the leases were issued properly.
The government has a role in this. It issued and extended the leases. In one view, it didn't carefully follow its own rules and didn't sufficiently protect the environment. In the other view, it changed the rules.
Either way, the BLM should find a way to be a facilitator in settling the issue — and drilling should not occur in the Thompson Divide.
For the industry's part, it has an opportunity to negotiate a reasonable return — not a killing — on a speculative investment. Without a settlement, the Thompson Divide leases are likely to continue being nonproducing assets and a source of bad PR.