The local environmental watchdog group, Wilderness Workshop, is asking locals to protest against a recent move by drilling companies to extend their mineral-rights leases in the Thompson Divide.
The Carbondale-based nonprofit is launching what David Reed, development director, calls an ad hoc campaign named “Let the leases expire.”
Earlier this month, two oil and gas companies — SG Interests and Ursa Piceance LLC — filed separate requests with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for more time to develop their natural gas wells. Both companies own leases that are due to expire this spring in the Thompson Divide, which includes 221,500 acres of federal land running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties. Oil and gas developers have 10 years from the date of a lease auction to produce a marketable amount of oil or gas from the land, or the leases expire.
The requests should not be granted because the leases were originally issued by the BLM without undergoing the requisite environmental analysis, Wilderness Workshop attorney Peter Hart argues.
The time has come for people to roll up their sleeves and do something to stop drilling in the area, Reed said during a presentation held earlier this month at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
“We need now to assemble an army of citizens who are prepared to take action,” he said. “And maybe — we’re not advocating anything illegal — but maybe something a little assertive.”
The nonprofit wants people to self-organize and take action by doing things like protesting in front of federal offices, performing street theater against drilling and holding rallies, Reed said.
At the presentation, Hart also noted that there are opportunities within the BLM’s review process for the public to engage with the agency. For example, as an environmental assessment of the area is done, the BLM will visit proposed drilling sites with representatives from the oil and gas companies, which the public can attend.
The Wilderness Workshop also is working with the Thompson Divide Coalition, which is made up of a group of local drilling opponents, to establish regular public meetings to discuss the progress of oil and gas companies’ efforts, he said.
Still, the public needs to arrange a single event or protest that receives national media attention to have an impact, Hart said. For example, last year Wilderness Workshop held a rally on Main Street in Carbondale against drilling. Months later, Hart spotted a picture of the event on a wall of a congressional staff member’s office in Washington D.C. Those are the kinds of culminating events that can stop drilling, he said.
Meanwhile, Don Simpson, vice president of development for Ursa Piceance, said his company is open to finding a solution that makes all sides of the issue happy. That could mean selling the Thompson Divide leases or swapping them with others that are not in an environmentally sensitive area, he said.
Ursa Piceance acquired seven leases in December and the company hasn’t had a lot of time to digest its situation, but it is open to negotiations, Simpson said.
Simpson plans to attend a public meeting on the topic Wednesday. The event is hosted by the Pitkin County commissioners and will be held at Carbondale Town Hall at 6 p.m.
The BLM currently is reviewing the suspension requests 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.
Pitkin County recently issued a formal request asking the BLM to create a public comment period prior to making a decision about the leases’ suspension. The agency is reviewing request, Boyd said.
In the meantime, Wilderness Workshop is collecting public comments and plans to relay those messages to the BLM, according to Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the nonprofit.
“Whether there’s a public comment period or not, we’re giving the public the opportunity to comment,” Shoemaker said.
In addition to Wednesday’s meeting, the Wilderness Workshop will host a free screening of the documentary “Bidder 70” at The Wheeler Opera House on March 9.
The movie is about a young protester named Tim DeChristopher, who derailed an oil and gas lease sale in Utah by winning an auction with money he didn’t have. A representative from DeChristopher’s nonprofit called Peaceful Uprising will speak at the screening.