Tipton staffer: BLM loses sight of swap option | PostIndependent.com

Tipton staffer: BLM loses sight of swap option

Rep. Scott Tipton

A Bureau of Land Management proposal to cancel some oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide outright and place new restrictions on others overlooks the option that would better compensate energy companies for the lost leases, a staffer for Congressman Scott Tipton says.

“We would like to move forward with a lease swap as the best solution,” Brian Meinhart, regional director and policy adviser for Tipton, said Tuesday during a discussion with Garfield County commissioners.

Doing that, though, requires a simple lease-for-lease exchange with no other stipulations that could make the proposal difficult to earn congressional support, he said.

SG Interests and Ursa Resources proposed last spring to trade about two dozen undeveloped leases in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs for new leases farther west.

Since then, Meinhart said the idea has been “encumbered with a wish list” of suggested additions, including proposals to permanently remove certain areas from future leasing.

That’s counter to Tipton’s position that a sound energy policy should not forever remove areas that have a potential for energy development, he said.

“The more complex it becomes, the less likely we are to garner support in Congress,” Meinhart said of the swap, which would require action by Congress to accomplish.

The Tuesday meeting was meant to help direct the county’s formal comments on the BLM’s proposed action in its environmental impact statement regarding 65 previously issued leases on the White River National Forest.

Currently, the comment deadline is Jan. 8, and commissioners expect to further discuss and finalize their comments on Jan. 4.

Energy companies that hold the affected leases as well as the industry group West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and some members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have asked for an extension of 45 days or longer.

That request has been denied by state BLM officials, but the decision is being appealed to higher-ups in Washington, D.C., said David Ludlam, executive director for West Slope COGA.

“In the last 10 years I don’t know of any EIS of significant importance, such as this one, that hasn’t been extended,” Ludlam said, reiterating the argument that the pending BLM decision seems to be politically motivated.

Ludlam also asked that the county commissioners support industry in its likely claim for damages for any leases that are canceled or made more difficult to develop with the proposed new stipulations related to no surface occupancy and limited access.

But representatives of the Thompson Divide Coalition and the Wilderness Workshop who also attended Tuesday’s meeting said industry has had plenty of time to comment on the proposal and it’s time to move toward a final decision.

Carbondale rancher Bill Fales said it doesn’t set a bad precedent to cancel or alter leases on federal lands. Look no further than grazing leases, he said, noting that he used to be permitted to graze 1,700 head of cattle in the Thompson Creek area but that number was reduced by the Forest Service to 1,200.

“We manage the forest better today because of that,” Fales said.

“It’s not a bad precedent if it’s done to correct something that wasn’t done correctly at the time the lease was issued,” he said in support of the BLM proposal to cancel leases in the Thompson Divide area. “It’s only to say, ‘We made a mistake, let’s fix it.’”

Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, agreed.

“From our perspective, these leases were issued in violation of the law,” he said. “I understand that these companies have made investments, and they should be refunded for those investments.”

If the BLM follows through and cancels some of the leases that were issued under the White River National Forest’s former 1993 oil and gas leasing plan, lease holders are to be compensated for lease payments and rents.

Ludlam said that should also extend to any losses on future production, which will be the basis for a likely legal challenge if the BLM does cancel leases and apply new restrictions contained in the Forest Service’s newly adopted leasing plan. That plan places restrictions on surface occupancy, including roads and pipelines, that weren’t contained in the 1993 plan.

“It’s not the position of our association, but you can also make the argument that the companies that don’t have their leases canceled are more damaged, because the retroactive stipulations make it onerous if not impossible to develop their leases,” Ludlam said.

Hart countered that the leases wouldn’t be issued at all today under the new rules, which should be applied to any leases that haven’t been developed, he said.

The BLM’s proposed action currently favors one of five alternatives that calls for canceling 18 leases and modifying seven others in the Thompson Divide region. Another 40 forest leases located farther to the west would continue but come under the new stipulations.

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