Column: Let BLM do its job, protect Thompson Divide
At a July 12 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources, oil and gas industry representatives asked the Bureau of Land Management to delay its analysis of 65 illegally issued leases in the Thompson Divide and nearby roadless lands. BLM is on the cusp of canceling 25 of those leases in the Thompson Divide — an outcome that reflects the will of local communities and a decade of hard fighting.
The Wilderness Workshop sought and got 462 signatures on a letter to Congress appearing below:
Recently the U.S. Geological Survey released an assessment that dramatically increased its estimate of technologically accessible shale gas in the Piceance Basin. The assessment suggests that there is as much as 40 times more gas than previously estimated underlying formations that have already been developed.
Some members of the oil and gas industry are trying to use the assessment to slow down BLM’s analysis of the illegally issued leases in the White River National Forest. These same industry representatives boycotted the process during BLM’s public comment period. Now they want a new comment period so they can make the case that the size of this resource justifies making every acre available for drilling.
Our take on this new USGS assessment is quite different. If USGS is correct about the volume of gas in the Piceance Basin, there is no reason to drill every acre. The new estimate suggests that numerous and significant new drilling opportunities exist, even in those areas that have already been developed.
Western Colorado is spectacular not just for oil and gas resources, but also for its outstanding wildlife habitat, water production, recreational and agricultural opportunities and for the quality of life. There are places where those values are, frankly, more important than fossil fuel development.
The sheer volume of gas estimated to exist in the Piceance Basin, especially when coupled with the current glut of natural gas across the country and the fact that technology is making unconventional resources developable in other areas too, is reason enough not to drill every square inch.
The 65 leases that BLM illegally issued on the White River National Forest represent a tiny fraction of the Piceance Basin. Leases in the Thompson Divide, for example, occupy just 0.7 percent of the basin. Setting aside some land in the Piceance to protect agriculture, recreation and wildlife so critical to our local economies is not just reasonable, it’s common sense.
Equally important, there is tremendous and near unanimous support for protecting areas that BLM illegally leased years ago. During the public comment period for BLM’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, more than 50,000 people asked BLM to protect roadless areas and the Thompson Divide. People of all stripes and political persuasions support protection of these areas. Letting a few oil and gas companies hijack this democratic process at the 11th hour to the detriment of local communities would epitomize poor governance.
During the subcommittee hearing, witnesses and committee members suggested that oil and gas jobs are somehow superior to recreation or agricultural jobs. The committee must understand that economies based on tourism and recreation in places like Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are some of the most robust in Colorado.
Counties including Mesa and Delta have lost thousands of jobs in the fossil fuel industry in recent years due to global and national market forces. Those jobs were not lost because of onerous government regulations, but because they rely on high commodity prices. Nonetheless, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale have weathered the great recession well and are thriving today largely because they are less dependent on fossil fuel related jobs.
The Thompson Divide and surrounding roadless lands play a critical role in the economic success and stability of western Colorado communities. Protected public lands free from the social and ecological impacts of oil and gas development lie at the heart of our sustainable and robust economy. And the numbers back this up. In 2014 recreational use on the White River National Forest, the nation’s most visited, generated $18,563,891 in revenue. In contrast, oil and gas produced only $38,409. The importance of protecting places like the Thompson Divide to our local economy couldn’t be clearer.
We add our voices to the rising chorus and ask that Congress let BLM finish its analysis of the 65 illegal leases as soon as possible. Like so many in our communities we care about these public lands; for many years we have participated in this process consistently and in good faith. We write to request that Congress not interfere in this important public process and let the BLM finish its job.
Will Roush is conservation director at Wilderness Workshop and Peter Hart is conservation analyst and staff attorney.
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