Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, has seen geologic maps of the Thompson Divide area south of Carbondale, and he’s not impressed by the area’s oil and gas potential.
“[The area] is not that high-potential. There are just a million more better places [to drill],” said Hickenlooper, speaking after a town hall meeting he held in Glenwood Springs on Friday afternoon.
“[The gas companies] say the potential is huge. I got a master’s in geology, right, and know a little something about it,” he added. “It didn’t look huge to me.”
Hickenlooper was in town to hear from local elected officials and business leaders about a range of issues affecting Colorado’s Western Slope, from rising health care costs to falling state transportation funding. But the issue of gas drilling — and the Thompson Divide in particular — occupied much of the governor’s time Friday afternoon.
Hickenlooper first backed efforts to prevent more drilling in the Thompson Divide during a visit to Aspen in March.
On Friday, though, he advocated more specifically for a buyout, land swap or similar mechanism that would allow Roaring Fork Valley locals to purchase Thompson Divide gas leases from the companies that hold them. A good solution, he said, would bring all parties to the table and avoid protracted legal battles.
“I’ve made a few phone calls and expressed an opinion, and I think we’ve got it in a pretty good place,” he said. “It might involve a swap, it might involve compensation. We’ll have to see.”
Hickenlooper took comments from several valley residents on the drilling issue. Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot told him that her town already has been through fossil fuel dependence, with the rise and fall of the coal industry there over the last century.
“Over the last 30 years, we’ve pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and created a new economy and a new community for Carbondale,” she said. “A lot of the folks that are here today want to preserve that, and have control of our destiny.”
Carbondale rancher Bill Fales, a board member of the citizen group Thompson Divide Coalition, told Hickenlooper that drilling in the Divide endangered an “agricultural resurgence” now taking place in western Colorado.
“We have the largest grass-fed beef operation in the state in Carbondale,” he said referring to Crystal River Meats. “I’m on a ranch that’s been in our family for 90 years and we’ve been grazing cows on the Thompson Divide for 70 years.”
Hickenlooper replied, “You’re what I call a lucky man.”
“Thank you. I thought you were gonna say old,” quipped Fales, as the crowd erupted in laughter.
The unpredictable alliances that have emerged in the Thompson Divide fight — between ranchers and mountain bikers, Republican county commissioners and Democratic mayors — would appear to be right up Hickenlooper’s alley.
The governor has been a determined moderate throughout his time in office, and recently has tackled divisive issues like gun control and the death penalty in Colorado.
On gas drilling, Hickenlooper has tried to remain squarely in the middle of the playing field, drinking fracking fluid one minute then fighting for tougher penalties on gas companies the next.
But on Friday, he said he was “sold” on the idea that scenic places like the Thompson Divide should be protected from the most intensive impacts of drilling, and he said he was pushing that view up the political chain.
Hickenlooper told the crowd that he had shared his concerns about Thompson Divide drilling with Sally Jewell, the Obama Administration’s new Secretary of Interior.
“She’s fully aware of it already,” he said. “I met with her 10 days ago and she’s up to speed, so [former Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar did his job and he passed that baton.”
Hickenlooper also discussed his broader record on oil and gas drilling across the state, including his plans to re-introduce a bill next year that would increase the minimum fine that gas companies face for environmental violations from $5,000 to $15,000.
“I guarantee you that will get their attention,” he said. “We’ve been increasing the regulatory environment to say that if you’re going to extract oil and gas in Colorado, there are going to be high standards.”
Yet the governor also defended his administration’s decision to sue the Front Range city of Longmont to stop its effort to ban hydraulic fracturing.
That ban, he said, would have endangered people’s rights to minerals that they purchased lawfully as investments, and would have amounted to a “taking” of their private property. It surely would have been challenged in court and defeated, he said.
Hickenlooper called Colorado’s split estate system, where two separate parties can own surface rights and mineral rights on the same land, “the worst system in the world. It’s a crappy system, but it’s a system we’re stuck with and I’m not sure what else we can do with it.”