CARBONDALE — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet made a last-minute stop in Carbondale on Thursday evening, praising a local coalition’s efforts to find a solution to the issue of drilling in the Thompson Divide.
Addressing a crowd of about 100 people gathered outside of the Crystal River Meats farm store on Main Street on a sunny spring evening, Bennet spoke briefly about a bill he introduced in March that would ban gas drilling in parts of the pristine area south of Carbondale. Bennet had spent the day crisscrossing the state meeting with constituents, and scheduled the Carbondale event on Wednesday.
“There are places where it makes sense to drill, and there are places where it doesn’t make sense to drill,” he said, speaking from his perch on a stump in the yard.
That claim has become the unofficial mantra of the Thompson Divide Coalition, the Carbondale-based group that is heading up efforts to purchase several gas leases in the Thompson Divide from natural gas companies SG Interests and Ursa Resources.
“The sense of collaboration here is a model for the rest of the country,” Bennet said of the group’s efforts. “We’ll continue working with all of the stakeholders to come to a solution.”
Bennet said he had just come from a meeting with some of the energy companies that hold leases in the Divide, although he didn’t go into detail about the state of negotiations over purchasing those leases.
The Thompson Divide Coalition has proposed a $2.5 million buyout of gas leases in the area to SG Interests and Ursa Resources, but the companies have so far declined the offer.
The Thompson Divide encompasses 221,500 acres of federal land west of Carbondale, running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass and crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties. There are 61 undeveloped mineral rights leases in the area — SG Interests owns 18 of them, while Ursa Resources owns 7.
The companies both filed requests in February with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requesting more time to develop their leases, which had been set to expire this month. The BLM granted their requests in April, despite more than 1,150 letters delivered to the BLM by the Thompson Divide Coalition urging the agency to let the leases expire.
BLM officials are taking a year to conduct additional environmental assessment and gather more public comment before issuing a final decision on whether the leases are valid in April of 2014.
Bennet’s bill, known as the “Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act,” would ban drilling in currently un-leased parts of the Thompson Divide, and create a mechanism for existing mineral leaseholders to sell or retire their leases on a voluntary basis.
The bill has been introduced to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled.
Adam Bozzi, Bennet’s press secretary, said the senator would “also look to other avenues,” besides passing the bill on its own, including “turning it into an amendment and finding an appropriate bill to attach it to.”
Bennet said that although it would take federal action to achieve permanent protection for the Thompson Divide, he hopes that Roaring Fork Valley activists and gas companies can come to an agreement over the contested leases.
“The best ideas come from here, not there,” he said. “This won’t move forward without federal legislation,” but the community here has made an enormous difference.
Zane Kessler, the executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, said he was impressed by the size of the crowd Thursday night, given that people were given less than 24 hours notice. And he said that although Bennet’s bill would protect about 40,000 fewer acres in the Thompson Divide than his group is fighting for, the bill is “a great first step.”
“We’re glad to have him on board,” said Kessler. “We want to come to a solution, and the industry will be a key part of that, so hopefully we’ll have them with us at the table.”
Since no stump speech is complete without a bit of folksy charm, Bennet laid it on thick by praising the quality of Crystal River Meats, whose burgers the crowd was snacking on.
“This is a true story,” he said. “We eat Crystal River beef all the time at my home in Denver, and the first time I tried it, I said ‘This is the best beef I’ve ever had!’”