Regional: Industry group challenges the existence of Thompson Divide
An oil and gas industry group is challenging the very notion that the Thompson Divide area even exists as a geographical region, calling it a “political concept” created by wilderness advocates to prevent development of gas leases in the area west of Carbondale.
The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and its member companies whose federal land leases are now under review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management also say they are preparing to file a “takings” lawsuit if any previously issued gas leases are canceled or modified.
WSCOGA Executive Director David Ludlam claims in a federal Freedom of Information Act request filed with state BLM officials that the “so-called Thompson Divide Area” evolved after numerous attempts dating back to 2006 to give federal wilderness protections to lower-elevation BLM lands in the region.
Among those efforts was the Hidden Gems campaign, a wilderness proposal promoted by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which is now among the groups opposing the continuation of gas leases issued under a 1993 U.S. Forest Service leasing plan.
“It is evident to WSCOGA members that the shifting Thompson Divide Area is a political concept created by wilderness advocates and not an area based on the Thompson Creek watershed or any other biological or geological considerations,” Ludlam writes in the Sept. 11 letter to Deborah Suehr, public information liaison for the BLM in Colorado.
Ludlam, who distributed the letter to reporters Tuesday, said the BLM now appears to have adopted those “arbitrary” boundaries in giving special attention to the Thompson Divide in its decision to review a total of 65 gas leases within the White River National Forest.
The sweeping FOIA request seeks any internal communications or documentation within the BLM during the past eight years referencing boundaries or giving definition to the Thompson Divide area.
Members of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, business owners and outdoor recreation enthusiasts who came up with the name when the coalition was organized in 2008 to try to prevent gas drilling in the area, took issue with Ludlam’s assertions.
“COGA should know better,” said Dorothea Farris, a founding member of the TDC and current board member.
“The Thompson Divide was never something designated by the BLM,” she said. “It is an area recognized by the citizens who ranch, hunt and live their lives there — the people whose livelihoods are ultimately at stake.”
TDC Executive Director Zane Kessler said the current BLM review is simply an effort to correct mistakes made in issuing the leases in the first place.
“We appreciate that BLM is taking responsibility for past mistakes in the leasing process and working to resolve those errors,” Kessler said. “This is not a conspiracy, it is an agency trying to rectify significant errors in the leasing process.”
Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot agreed.
“Western Slope residents want accountability and transparency in government,” she said in a statement issued by the TDC. “Fixing mistakes is good government, not bad government. And taxpayers deserve nothing less.”
The town of Carbondale has joined with Pitkin County and the city of Glenwood Springs in appealing the BLM’s decision to extend leases that were set to expire last year. That decision ultimately led to the BLM’s decision to conduct a new analysis of the leases.
Ludlam said his association members stand ready to sue the federal government if need be to protect leaseholder rights to develop the leases.
“We want to start painting a picture for ourselves as to how this agency prioritized these boundaries, which appear to be ever-shifting and basically drawn with a red Sharpie,” Ludlam said. “This whole thing seems to be an attempt to fold the political priorities of a lot of groups into one effort.
“We believe we know what the outcome of this will likely be,” he added, suggesting that some leases will either be canceled or modified, especially those lying within the area generally recognized as the Thompson Divide.
“Based on comments BLM has made privately to member companies with producing leases outside of the so-called Thompson Divide Area, WSCOGA believes BLM is considering different treatment for leases that fall in or outside of this area,” Ludlam wrote in his FOIA request to the BLM.
Comments from both Pitkin and Garfield counties also ask the BLM to make such a distinction in its lease analysis, he noted.
Doing so, “would violate the due process rights of our members holding those targeted leases and be subject to legal challenge,” Ludlam wrote.
The BLM announced in April that it would extend two dozen leases in the Thompson Divide area that were set to expire, and would analyze a total of 65 leases issued under a 1993 U.S. Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement.
The Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals determined the process to issue the leases to be deficient because the BLM did not adopt the Forest Service review or conduct its own review.
As many as 32 leases are within what’s commonly referred to as the Thompson Divide, which covers about 221,500 acres stretching from Four Mile Park south of Glenwood Springs to the Huntsman Ridge area near McClure Pass on Highway 133.
Two leaseholders, SG Interests and Ursa Resources Group, have test well development proposals before the BLM that are now on hold pending the broader lease review. The larger lease area spans some 40 miles of the White River National Forest extending west to the De Beque area.
In a related development announced Tuesday, the Wilderness Workshop said it intends to appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals the BLM’s decision to continue leases that had been set to expire. Pitkin County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are also preparing an appeal of that decision.
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