Garfield County endorses partial limit on Thompson Divide leasing
Garfield County commissioners took a big step Monday in the effort to protect at least part of the Thompson Divide area from future federal mineral leasing, endorsing permanent withdrawal of some acreage in conjunction with a proposed lease exchange.
“Permanent withdrawal is against my philosophy. However, in this case … it’s compromise that’s important, and I really want to see this get off center and move forward,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.
Jankovsky put forward a letter, to which his fellow commissioners agreed, expressing continued support for a legislative lease exchange proposed by energy companies SG Interests and Ursa Resources.
In addition, the commissioners said they support the withdrawal of about 39,000 acres in the Garfield County portion of the larger Thompson Divide region from consideration for future oil and gas leases.
The commissioners did leave several thousand acres on the Divide Creek side out of the protected area — that land would still be available for future leasing should the plan receive congressional support.
It’s a compromise that those advocates for protecting the Thompson Divide area from future energy development said they can live with.
“We are supportive of this compromise, and recognize that not everybody is going to be happy with this,” said Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition.
“But this is not a zero-sum game,” he said in thanking the commissioners for their support in removing at least part of the area from future leasing.
AT ODDS WITH TIPTON
The commissioners’ position is counter to that of the energy companies that have proposed trading their two dozen or so Thompson Divide leases for new leases of equal value elsewhere in western Colorado.
It is also at odds with the recent position stated by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who said he opposes permanent withdrawal of federal lands either inside or outside the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas leasing.
“I just feel that compromise is important for Garfield County here, and there is some give and take in that,” Jankovsky said.
Jankovsky said he hopes Tipton and U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet can get behind the compromise as well, and come up with legislation that includes both the proposed lease exchange and withdrawal.
Commission Chairman John Martin said that as long as the existing lease holders are made whole in the deal, he was fine with the revised position statement. But he emphasized that private mineral rights, those not on public lands, would not be affected.
“Those private mineral rights are still up there, and they can be developed,” Martin said.
The Wilderness Workshop, which supports canceling the majority of the 65 existing, mostly undeveloped leases currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management in the Thompson Divide and across a large swath of the White River National Forest west of there, says it can live with the compromise as well.
“We do see those 12,000 acres (in the Divide Creek area) as having the same values as the rest of the Thompson Divide,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Carbondale-based group.
“While we are not happy about that compromise, we understand that this is a big step, and it’s a momentum builder,” Hart said.
The lease exchange would involve SG Interests and Ursa giving up their Thompson Divide leases for leases in Delta, Mesa and Gunnison counties, in the case of SG, and in Rio Blanco County for Ursa.
Earlier this year, Delta County commissioners agreed to support the SG lease swap if parts of the North Fork Valley outside the Thompson Divide on the south side of McClure Pass are withdrawn from availability.
That prompted Tipton, R-Cortez, with SG’s support, to take the position in September that the lease exchange should not be tied to the removal of lands from future leasing. Tipton, in an op-ed that appeared in the Post Independent, cited uncertainty around the nation’s long-term energy needs and a desire to “keep all energy resources as a viable option to fuel our economy.”
“We believe this statement from Garfield County sends a clear message to Congress that there are areas where there is support, even from some of the most conservative counties, for permanent withdrawal,” Kessler said.
The county’s endorsement applies only to federal lands in Garfield County, although Pitkin County commissioners have long been on record that they support permanent withdrawal of the Thompson Divide from future leasing.
Jankovsky noted that two of Ursa’s leases that have been offered for exchange do lie within the Divide Creek area that the commissioners said they did not want included in the protection area.
However, they remain part of the BLM’s ongoing review of the 65 leases, for which a draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected later this month. Under that analysis, the BLM could cancel or modify some of the decade-old leases that have not been developed.
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