Thompson Divide lease cancellation confirmed with legal case dismissal | PostIndependent.com

Thompson Divide lease cancellation confirmed with legal case dismissal

An autumn aerial view of the Thompson Divide region west of Carbondale, overlooking the Lake Ridge Lakes, near where some of the canceled gas leases were located.

Environmental groups are claiming victory after a legal challenge to the Bureau of Land Management's cancellation of 18 undeveloped oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale was formally dismissed by a federal court in Denver last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn on Sept. 4 ordered the dismissal of the case, following an agreement earlier this summer between U.S. Interior Department officials and Houston-based SG Interests reimbursing the energy company $1.5 million for the canceled leases.

"This means that SG has received its money, and the lease cancellations should be a done deal," the Thompson Divide Coalition, which formed in 2008 in opposition to the leases and to secure permanent protection of the area from future leasing, said in a statement from its board of directors.

"This settlement ends the possibility that any undeveloped oil and gas mineral leases in the Thompson Divide might be developed," the group said.

The White River National Forest and BLM, in a 2015 leasing management plan, decided to close the Thompson Divide to new leasing for at least until 2035.

"Now, 10 years later, we have succeeded in our mission for the foreseeable future," the coalition wrote.

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Several other pre-existing leases not included among the two dozen leases that were canceled, including seven that were held by Ursa Resource, do still exist in the area. SG controls several leases within the Wolf Creek Storage Unit south of the Sunlight ski area.

The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and its affiliates also applauded the conclusion of the disputed lease case, calling it "the end of one of the longest brewing conflicts in the broader campaign to protect the Thompson Divide."

"The communities who fought long and hard to protect the Thompson Divide can now rest easier," Michael Freeman, staff attorney at Earthjustice who represents Wilderness Workshop in legal matters related to these Thompson Divide leases, said in a news release issued Monday.

"This area of the divide will remain protected, and the dispute over these improperly issued leases is now officially over," he said.

The Thompson Divide involves roughly 220,000 acres of public lands in the heart of the White River National Forest.

SG Interests had vehemently opposed the lease cancellation, arguing the BLM kept putting up barriers to prevent development until the leases finally expired, and that the decision to cancel the leases was a "top-down" decision made by the BLM under the previous Obama administration.

The TDC, Wilderness Workshop and others argued, however, that local opposition drove the decision in recognition of the "unspoiled," wilderness-like nature of the area. The expanse of land west of Carbondale and south of Glenwood Springs is prized for hunting and fishing, as well as agricultural grazing, and is an important watershed for the Crystal and Roaring Fork river valleys, the groups argued.

"It took more than a decade of consistent engagement and support from local communities in and around the divide to get BLM to, first, acknowledge the legal errors that were made when the leases were sold, and then to clean up the mess," Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop, said, adding, "Nearly everyone agrees the divide deserves to be protected from industrial development."

Hart cautioned, however, that with the Trump administration's push to prioritize fossil fuel development, "It means that our work is not done. We'll need to continue diligent efforts to protect the Thompson Divide and extraordinary public values that make it so deserving of protection," he said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, has introduced a bill to permanently protect Thompson Divide each year for the last four years. So far, though, the bill has not made it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.

jstroud@postindependent.com