With its mineral-rights leases set to expire in May, the oil and gas company seeking to drill in the Thompson Divide asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Thursday for more time to develop natural gas wells in the area.
Since October, Houston-based SG Interests has submitted six applications to the BLM to drill wells in the Thompson Divide, and intends to file three more. Once they’re all filed, the feds will begin an environmental assessment of the plans, which has to take place before drilling can commence and could take up to two years. The Thompson Divide includes 221,500 acres of federal land running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties.
SG Interests requested that starting retroactively on Feb. 1 the BLM suspend the expiration date of 16 of its leases in the Thompson Divide. SG Interests purchased the leases from the U.S. Forest Service in a 2003 auction and the company has until May 31 to develop them before they expire. If the BLM grants the request, it would put the leases’ expiration date on hold until the environmental assessment is completed.
The BLM is currently reviewing the request and does not have an estimate on when a decision will be made, according to David Boyd, BLM spokesperson. The decision to approve or deny a lease suspension request is a BLM administrative action that does not require a formal public comment period, according to Boyd.
The federal government gives oil and gas companies 10 years after a lease auction to build a well that produces an amount of oil or gas that can be sold, otherwise the lease holder gives up their rights. A company can request that the BLM suspend the expiration date of the lease at any time and the BLM is obligated to do so if the lease development is being prevented due to an environmental review process, litigation surrounding the area, severe weather or government action, according to the BLM’s governing documents.
It would serve conservation interests if the lease extension is granted, because it would give the federal government more time to make a decision about allowing oil and gas development in the area, SG Interests Vice President Robbie Guinn wrote in a letter to the BLM. It would also allow SG Interests more time to work with Pitkin County and the Thompson Divide Coalition to address environmental concerns about potential drilling, the letter says. The letter also requests that the company be given two complete seasons to drill after the environment assessment is completed and the suspension is removed.
Members of the Thompson Divide Coalition sent out a statement Thursday calling for a 30-day comment period to allow for the public to respond.
“No business would give this type of option away for free,” said Bill Fales, a coalition member and local rancher. “Why should BLM and the taxpayers reward SG Interests’ delays? BLM should afford us the opportunity to provide official comment on any decision that could impact our water, or businesses or our livelihoods.”
Meanwhile, Peter Hart, an attorney for the Carbondale-based environmental nonprofit Wilderness Workshop, argued that the leases in question shouldn’t have been issued by the Forest Service to begin with, because the agency didn’t undertake adequate National Environmental Policy Act analysis and the development conflicts with its own land management plan.
“If BLM grants suspension, this may be the clearest, most poignant and stinging example we’ve seen of BLM giving the industry something for nothing, despite extraordinary and broad-based opposition from the public that owns these lands and minerals,” Hart said.
Meanwhile, last month, a representative of SG Interests called the Pitkin County attorney’s office to assess the county’s willingness to agree to allow the leases in question to be extended, according to Chris Seldin, assistant county attorney.
“I think they were hoping that we would agree not to oppose extensions of their leases,” Seldin said.
That is not the case, he said. The county plans to take out a full-page ad in the local newspapers on Saturday that asks first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to take action against drilling in the area. Both are vacationing in the Roaring Fork Valley this President’s Day weekend.
“There are right places to drill and wrong places to drill,” the letter, which is signed by the county commissioners, says. “No one would, for example, seriously suggest erecting drill rigs in Central Park. We see no exaggeration in saying that Colorado’s mountain country is America’s Central Park — or in saying that drilling here would be similarly destructive to our internationally famous tourist economy. Please tell BLM to let these illegal leases expire.”
In 2011, SG Interests submitted an application to the BLM to combine its 16 Thompson Divide leases into the Lake Ridge Unit. If approved, the unitization request would allow the company to develop all the leases, if one productive well could be drilled in the unit. Since then, public controversy has been rampant over the proposed for development. Pitkin County, the Thompson Divide Coalition, the Wilderness Workshop, Citizens for a Healthy Community and others requested that BLM deny the application and cancel the leases. The BLM has not made a decision regarding the Lake Ridge Unit yet.
Although there is currently no formal public comment period during the decision process for extending a lease, people can provide comments at any time to the BLM at firstname.lastname@example.org .