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Pitkin County afraid that BLM backs Thompson Divide leases

An aerial view of the Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale.
EcoFlight photo

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An early draft of the Bureau of Land Management’s analysis of 65 oil and gas leases, including some in the Thompson Divide area, has raised red flags for at least one of the other agencies involved in the process.

Pitkin County commissioners, in forthcoming comments regarding the first go-round of the federal agency’s environmental analysis, question a decision to select as a “proposed action” an alternative that would basically ratify the existing leases with only some minor changes.

Such a decision, even at this preliminary stage, “directly contradicts an overwhelming volume of comment from the public, local jurisdictions and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper indicating the Pitkin County leases never should have been issued,” according to the comment letter, which is to be forwarded to local BLM officials later this week.

“It also flies in the face of the Forest Service’s recent determination that oil and gas development is inappropriate in the Thompson Divide,” states the letter, which the Pitkin commissioners authorized Tuesday.

Commissioners make it clear that their comments relate only to leases within Pitkin County. The larger Thompson Divide region takes in parts of Pitkin, Garfield, Mesa, Delta and Gunnison counties.

Other cooperating agencies, including Garfield County, the city of Glenwood Springs and the town of Carbondale, are also in receipt of the Preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement made available to them earlier this month, and will be reviewing it for formal comment.

Garfield commissioners on Monday said they want to reserve comment until some of the socio-economic impact data is included in the analysis, but reiterated their opposition to the use of Four Mile Road as haul route into the area south of Glenwood Springs, where some of the leases exist.

Carbondale’s town board was slated to consider comments during a special meeting Tuesday night.

The preliminary document is not available to the public, and is considered an internal working document at this point between the BLM and the cooperating agencies, area BLM spokesman David Boyd said.

An official draft EIS is to be released in November, he said, at which time there will be public meetings and a formal public comment period.

“It’s still predecisional right now, but there will be a point where we want public comment,” Boyd said, explaining that releasing the various alternatives too early could skew the process.

“We are still going through our own internal review and analysis, and there could be significant changes in the draft EIS based on the cooperators’ review,” Boyd said.

It’s also important to note that a proposed action is different from the more-official “preferred alternative” that will be included in the draft EIS, he said.

“We start with a proposed action, and build the alternatives around it,” Boyd said. “Very often, the preferred alternative is very different, and right now the whole range of alternatives is still on the table.”

Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Chris Seldin called it “completely improper” for the BLM to essentially “execute a contract” to continue the leases before going through the entire National Environmental Policy Act process.

“They could have canceled them all, then chosen to evaluate them under NEPA to determine whether they should be reissued,” Seldin said.

Even if that might complicate matters involving leases that are already in production farther west in the study area, he said it’s possible within the review process to distinguish between active and undeveloped leases.

The BLM began the new analysis of leases issued under a 1993 Forest Service leasing plan after acknowledging that it violated NEPA by not conducting its own analysis at the time.

“While some within BLM have characterized the underlying legal deficiency as technical in nature, we strongly disagree,” the Pitkin County letter states.

“We are gratified that BLM has recognized this error and has taken steps to remediate it through the current EIS process,” the letter continues. “We are concerned, however, that the BLM appears to believe that the burden of proof in this process rests with those seeking to eliminate leases issued illegally without any public involvement, rather than those who seek to retain them.”

For its part, Pitkin County said it prefers an alternative included in the preliminary document that would cancel all of the leases located in the Pitkin County portion of the Thompson Divide.

The Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been working for several years to prevent oil and gas development in the divide by eliminating existing leases and preventing further leasing, has much broader concerns with the BLM proposal.

“It appears to completely disregard the Forest Service’s updated leasing plan and the tens of thousands of citizen comments asking the Bureau to cancel illegally issued leases in the Thompson Divide,” said Zane Kessler, executive director for the TDC.

“This is an important call to action for our communities,” he said. “We’ve rallied together before, and it looks like we’ll need to do it again.”


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