The town of Snowmass Village will endorse the effort to protect the Thompson Divide area outside Carbondale from natural gas drilling, the Town Council decided Monday in a unanimous vote.
Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Boineau will sign a letter, bound for the office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, (D-Colo.), drafted by the Thompson Divide Coalition. The missive says the town is supportive of the coalition’s efforts “to secure protections from oil and gas development on federal lands” in the Thompson Divide area.
Coalition executive director Zane Kessler told Town Council that the goal of signing Snowmass onto the effort is to demonstrate wide community support of preservation before Congress. His group is seeking federal regulations to permanently withdraw the area from availability for future leasing. He also spoke about the organization’s $2.5 million offer to existing leaseholders in Thompson Divide to retire current leases, a proposal that has yet to be accepted by the five energy-extraction firms looking to drill in the area.
Asked by Boineau if the town’s support will mean funding the conservation effort, Kessler said no. The coalition is going away from asking public entities with tight budgets to help fund the effort and is relying instead on grant opportunities and the like, he said.
One of the coalition’s next steps will involve commissioning an in-depth mineral analysis of the area to see how economically feasible it would be to drill for gas, Kessler said. But he said the group, which also has commissioned a water-quality study of the area, feels that Thompson Divide is out of the “sweet spot” of the gas-rich Piceance Basin near Rifle.
Councilman John Wilkinson asked Bennet last week about unveiling a draft bill on Thompson Divide. The proposal would withdraw unleased minerals on public lands in the area, essentially protecting them from future oil and gas development. It explicitly states it would preserve existing rights of gas leaseholders, but it also states that the feds would, within 180 days of the bill’s passage, provide opportunities for donation, voluntary exchange, or other relinquishment of those rights for retirement.
The legislation is in its initial stage, posted to the senator’s website so the public can comment on it.
“He’s trying to find a middle ground,” Kessler said of Bennet.
Wilkinson, a board member of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said he was just back from a trip to the White House to accept an award for the bus agency’s overhaul of the valley’s transit system — one that involves, among other aspects, converting about a third of all buses to run on natural gas. The United States is undergoing an energy revolution involving the fuel, one that could potentially end dependence on foreign oil, Wilkinson said.
He also asked about energy firms’ use of new technology, including horizontal drilling, to lessen impacts from the process.
Kessler acknowledged the innovations but said they wouldn’t prevent road-building and other land-use impacts. He also said that, even with new technology, the process still involves a tremendous amount of water, which could harm the Thompson Creek and Four Mile Creek watersheds.
“It will fragment the landscape no matter what,” Kessler said.