Trade group seeks ‘clarity’ on Thompson Divide deal
A West Slope energy trade association is seeking clarification from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet regarding the terms of his support for a proposed exchange of natural gas leases in the Thompson Divide area for leases elsewhere in the region.
Meanwhile, Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday joined Delta County in support of proposed legislation that would move the deal forward, but contingent on withdrawing parts of the North Fork of the Gunnison Valley from future leasing.
The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association has supported a proposal by SG Interests and Ursa Piceance LLC to trade undeveloped leases on about 42,000 acres within the larger Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs for leases on a similar amount of federal land in Mesa and Rio Blanco counties.
But the recent call for permanent withdrawal of areas just outside the Thompson Divide, and even within the Divide, is counter to the trade group’s goals, said David Ludlam, executive director for West Slope COGA.
“Industry’s provisional support for the concept of a Thompson Divide compromise is a decade in the making, and recent developments threaten the proposed compromise,” Ludlam wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Bennet’s Washington, D.C., office.
“For many parties, broad-based support has always been contingent on not including additional acreage for withdrawal,” he wrote. “Another provision of support included confining the withdrawn leases to specific areas historically related to and within the geographic confines of Thompson Divide proper.”
Ludlam said the letter, which was copied to Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, is simply meant to bring “clarity” to the issue and preserve the integrity of the deal put forward by the energy companies and supported by WSCOGA and other interests.
It also questions the role of Bennet staffers in “facilitating” the calls for removal of additional areas from future leasing.
“There are so many parties involved and moving pieces to this, that when there is not clarity it becomes difficult to advise our membership on a position,” Ludlam told the Post Independent.
“We have always maintained the importance that permanent withdrawal not be a part of this proposal,” he said.
A spokesman for Bennet offered in response to the letter that the senator is just trying to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard when it comes to a proposal that affects multiple Western Slope counties, industry, citizen groups and other stakeholders.
“Senator Bennet believes we should give all of the stakeholders an opportunity to weigh in on the plans that have been proposed,” Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said in an email.
“He respects the boundaries of each county and believes they should decide for themselves what is best within their borders,” Bozzi said. “He will not move forward with a bill or proposal until there is local agreement.”
A letter authorized Tuesday by the Gunnison County commissioners to Sens. Bennet and Gardner and Congressman Tipton supports Delta County in qualifying support for the Thompson Divide lease exchange on the removal of parts of the Gunnison National Forest near McClure Pass from future leasing.
“We want to commend our neighbors in Delta County for the consensus they have reached on natural resource development and management in an extremely sensitive portion of their county,” the Gunnison letter states.
When the Thompson Divide lease exchange was proposed in March, the Delta County group Citizens for a Healthy Community expressed concerns that, by trading out leases in the Thompson Divide, it could shift the impacts of natural gas drilling to the North Fork Valley.
Delta County commissioners, in a July 6 letter to congressional delegation, said the proposal provided an opportunity for a “larger landscape conversation” about gas development near McClure Pass.
The Gunnison commissioners agreed, in particular citing the Huntsman Ridge area as “being identified by our sportsmen as a premier hunting area” that “needs to be a part of the discussion.”
“We feel that exchange, withdraws, opportunity areas and no surface occupancy are all tools to be used to meet the goals of a comprehensive, regional solution,” the Gunnison letter states.
Garfield County commissioners have also joined the other counties affected by the proposed lease exchange, including Mesa, Rio Blanco and Pitkin counties, in support of the deal.
However, Garfield commissioners, while supporting the efforts of the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition to protect the area from drilling, have not taken a formal position on permanent removal of area from future leasing.
Zane Kessler, executive director for the coalition of ranchers, recreation groups and conservationists, applauded the positions taken by Gunnison and Delta counties.
“It’s good to see that Gunnison County has joined Delta and Garfield counties in requesting meaningful conservation measures as a component of this exchange proposal,” Kessler said.
“We were disappointed to hear that WSCOGA will ‘actively oppose’ these counties — and even their own members — if they work to find a balanced approach as part of this exchange,” Kessler added.
Ludlam said the lease exchange gives the Thompson Divide Coalition “99 percent of what they have campaigned for.”
Even though his group opposes permanent withdrawal of forest lands from future leasing, the proposed lease exchange combined with the White River National Forest’s removal of the Thompson Divide area from new leasing for the next 20 years provides “de facto” withdrawal, Ludlam indicated in his letter to Bennet.
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