Thompson Divide drilling debate to heat up next month |

Thompson Divide drilling debate to heat up next month

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The North Thompson Creek roadless area. (Aerial photo courtesy Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight and the Wilderness Workshop)

While Garfield County considers its options concerning an effort to prevent natural gas exploration in Thompson Creek, a group of activists behind the effort is moving ahead with plans to drum up public support for its work.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, made up of ranchers, landowners, governments and public activists, will host a community meeting on Sept. 3, at 7 p.m. at the Carbondale Fire House, on Highway 133 across from the main entrance to River Valley Ranch.

The coalition was formed earlier this year to find a way to prevent gas exploration companies from developing 81 existing gas leases in roughly 100,000 acres of public lands in the Thompson and Divide creek drainages, part of which is listed in the federal inventory of roadless areas.

Coalition members cite the area’s natural beauty, and express skepticism about the value of gas and oil reserves in the ground there, as reasons to stop the drilling.

The coalition hopes to protect the area from any future leasing by the federal government, and is looking into everything from federal legislation to “withdraw” the area from future lease offerings, to paying or otherwise enticing the leaseholders to give up their drilling plans, among other possibilities.

The area in question lies to the south and west of Carbondale and on the other side of McClure Pass, and touches on the watersheds of Fourmile Creek, Threemile Creek, Muddy Basin, Coal Basin and East Divide Creek, according to coalition officials.

The coalition went before Garfield County on Aug. 10 to ask the Garfield County commissioners to sign off on a resolution supporting the coalition’s work, but commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson declined to go along.

The commission remains divided on the issue, noted commissioner Tresi Houpt, who on Aug. 10 moved for adoption of the coalition’s resolution and who agrees that gas drilling in Thompson Divide would be inappropriate.

Although Martin and Samson rejected the resolution as worded, they agreed to work on writing up a new resolution in support of the coalition’s general goals. Houpt said that on Aug. 17 the commissioners considered a resolution that Samson brought to the board’s regular meeting. Samson’s wording also prompted objections, she said, and the issue is to come up again at a meeting on Sept. 8.

Speaking for himself, Martin said this week, “We’ll support the concept of working together,” referring to the coalition’s stated ambition to bring together the various sides on the issue, including oil and gas companies and federal land managers, to work out a compromise solution.

But, he said, “We do not feel that just doing away with any leases is possible,” citing private property rights and the industry’s mineral leaseholdings as the paramount factors in his thinking.

Jock Jacober, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, said the Sept. 3 meeting is intended to gauge public sentiment on the issue, as part of the coalition’s efforts to enlist the support of U.S. Congressman John Salazar, D-Manassa.

Jacober said the coalition plans to approach Salazar formally in the future, possibly in early 2010, “after we engage in a dialogue with the oil and gas companies” about the industry’s views of the matter.

“One of the things we’re depending on is a congress that’s a little more conscious about environmental protection” than was the case during the administration of former President George W. Bush, Jacober said.

Generally, coalition members have said, the Thompson Divide effort is patterned after similar efforts in Wyoming and Montana, in which gas industry companies abandoned intentions to drill in certain regions after an upswell of popular local opposition.

“There are times when you find areas that are too special to drill, and too difficult to drill around,” Houpt said. “This might be one of those locations.”

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