Enviros, industry embrace possible Thompson Divide settlement
A proposal by two energy companies to swap oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs for new leases in parts of Delta, Mesa, Gunnison and Rio Blanco counties is being met with optimism from conservation and industry groups alike.
But the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition and two North Fork Valley groups also want to make sure communities in the areas where the leasing rights would be transferred have a say in the pending negotiations.
“We do believe this is an important first step in a process that could result in the retirement or cancelation of leases in the Thompson Divide,” Zane Kessler, executive director for the TDC, told Garfield County commissioners Monday.
“If the industry’s proposal does move forward, it will be imperative that counties on the receiving end of this exchange, and their constituents, have a seat at the table,” Kessler said in a follow-up statement, repeating concerns he expressed to the commissioners.
Separate proposals put forward by SG Interests and Ursa Resources, first reported Saturday in the Post Independent, offer to exchange federal leases covering about 42,000 acres within the larger Thompson Divide region for leases on other nearby forest lands.
In SG’s case, it would give up 18 federal leases in its Lake Ridge Unit within the Thompson Divide, as well as drilling rights beneath the existing Wolf Creek storage unit, in exchange for an equal amount of leasable area, about 30,000 acres, on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.
SHIFTS LOCATION OF FIGHT
According to Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, about 65 percent of the new lease area is available but unleased lands in Delta County north of Paonia and west and north of its existing Bull Mountain Unit.
Another 30 percent would be in Mesa County and about 600 acres would be in Gunnison county, he said Monday after meeting with the Garfield County commissioners seeking their support for federal legislation that would be necessary to allow the lease exchanges to occur.
The proposal signals a break in the TDC’s stalled efforts to try to acquire or otherwise have the undeveloped leases in the roughly 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area canceled.
But it also raises concerns for those in the North Fork Valley who have been fighting a similar battle to protect public lands in parts of Delta and Gunnison counties from energy development.
Mike Drake, who chairs the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, said it will be crucial to have North Fork interests represented in any settlement negotiations.
“We need to make sure this solves the many important problems [without] creating any new problems,” he said.
The Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) also issued a statement upon learning of the proposed lease swap proposal Monday.
“We plan to analyze the details of it carefully to make sure that it’s bringing enduring, meaningful protections and not creating new problems,” wrote CHC director Jim Ramey. “Communities on both sides of McClure Pass cherish our public lands … We look forward to reviewing the proposal, and continuing to work for the protection that all these important public lands deserve.”
Garfield County commissioners gave tentative approval to a letter of support that is to be sent to members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation asking them to carry necessary legislation to move the proposed lease exchange forward. A final version of that letter is to be considered at the commissioners’ April 13 meeting.
As proposed, in addition to SG Interests proposed lease swap, Ursa would give up seven Thompson Divide-area leases, covering about 12,000 acres, for leasing rights elsewhere on the White River National Forest in Rio Blanco County.
County commissioners there signed a letter of support for the proposal in late March.
“Obviously, this is the first step in what promises to be a lengthy process,” SG’s Sanford said at the Monday commissioners meeting.
While “it would be preferable to develop the leases we already own,” he said, a fair exchange that would need to be evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management may turn out to be a reasonable compromise for the lease holders.
David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, also endorsed a negotiated settlement that would allow SG and Ursa to move forward more quickly on new leases instead of being mired in the uncertainty of their Thompson Divide leases.
The undeveloped Thompson Divide leases are currently being re-examined by the BLM along with 40 other existing oil and gas leases on the southwestern part of the White River National Forest, and may or may not be reauthorized.
“We would like to offer our endorsement of this proposal, which makes a lot of sense,” Ludlam said. “As Eric mentioned, the ideal situation would be to be able to develop their existing leases. But this is a solution that may allow them to proceed in a more expedient way.”
WILDERNESS WORKSHOP OPEN-MINDED
Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop which has opposed continuation of the Thompson Divide leases, also gave a tentative thumbs-up to a potential lease exchange.
He, too, cautioned against creating new problems in other areas.
“We remain open-minded about this,” Hart said after the meeting. “Obviously, we want to see enduring protection of that (Thompson Divide) area, not just a short-term solution.”
Part of SG’s proposal would exclude legislative language calling for any permanent removal of the Thompson Divide for future leasing consideration.
“Our goal is permanent protection,” Hart said.
The TDC’s Kessler has also said that permanent protection of the Thompson Divide is preferred, beyond the 20-year removal that’s included in the White River National Forest oil and gas leasing management plan draft decision.
Sanford said afterward that a “simple lease exchange,” rather than a deal seeking permanent, or even long-term protections, “has the best chance of success.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky has called for a settlement to the Thompson Divide dispute similar to the one worked out between energy companies, environmental groups and the BLM on the Roan Plateau west of Rifle.
In that deal, which is still pending BLM’s final blessing, some leases are to be canceled in exchange for allowing other existing leases to be developed.
“This is the first really positive step in these negotiations, and it could be a solution for the Thompson Divide,” Jankovsky said.
He noted that the county commissioners have been on record as supporting efforts to remove leases from the Thompson Divide, as long as the lease holders are adequately compensated in some way.
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