2013 #8: Thompson Divide debate continues to heat up | PostIndependent.com

2013 #8: Thompson Divide debate continues to heat up

Debate over the prospect of drilling for natural gas in the remote Thompson Divide area, a sprawling expanse of more than 221,000 acres of federal land with wilderness qualities southwest of Glenwood Springs, continued to make headlines in 2013.

Houston-based SG Interests officially filed for permits to drill exploratory wells and take the next steps toward developing its leases in the area.

The leases remain disputed, and Pitkin County, where much of the Thompson Divide area lies, continued its legal argument that the more-than 10-year-old leases were not properly issued in the first place.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management granted a so-called “suspension” for some of SG’s leases that were set to expire mid-year, effectively keeping them in place.

The BLM is in the process of conducting a formal environmental review of the drilling plans. The lengthy review is to include a determination about whether a proper analysis was done when the leases were issued in the early 2000s under the Bush administration.

Several meetings during the year, including one organized by Pitkin County commissioners in Carbondale in February, drew hundreds of people, mostly speaking out against the drilling plans. The Carbondale meeting also invited representatives from SG Interests, federal land agencies, environmental groups, and the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of area ranchers, outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists and others who are attempting to prevent drilling in the Thompson Divide.

In March, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. The bill offered what Bennet termed a “middle-ground solution,” withdrawing unleased minerals in the Thompson Divide area from future oil-and-gas development, while also preserving the rights of existing leaseholders.

The proposal also creates an opportunity for holders of the existing active leases to be retired should they be donated or sold by willing owners.

Local governments including the Glenwood Springs and Carbondale town councils also reiterated their opposition to drilling in the Thompson Divide. A primary concern for Glenwood Springs is a proposal by SG Interests to use Four Mile Road and Midland Avenue as a haul route to access leases near Sunlight Mountain Resort.

Residents of the Four Mile Area also stepped up pressure on the Garfield County commissioners to declare the road a “no-haul” route. Commissioners have advised federal officials reviewing SG’s permit application that Four Mile is not appropriate for a haul route, but have said they cannot legally close the road to industry traffic.

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