Conservation group wants D.C. to halt Thompson Divide gas drilling review

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Conservationists are renewing a call to the nation’s top public lands officials to delay a decision that could pave the way for natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area.
The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, through the non-profit law firm Earthjustice, sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Monday to halt consideration of a “unitization” request to drill on 32,000 acres in the Divide area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently considering that request from gas company SG Interests.
“BLM should defer any decision on unitization until robust and meaningful discussions can occur among stakeholders,” it reads.
Gas companies hold more than 70 natural gas drilling leases in the Divide area, which stretches across the forest from Carbondale to McClure Pass. Local ranchers, elected officials and conservationists have opposed drilling in the area and lobbied against it as the Thompson Divide Coalition since 2008. 
The Workshop’s request echoes a similar appeal from both of Colorado’s U.S. senators to Salazar and Vilsack last month.
Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall — using the same “robust and meaningful discussions” verbage — had asked the BLM in October to put aside the unitization review as talks between local opponents and SG interests are in progress. They met late last month in Carbondale.
Bennet, Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton have expressed hope that a compromise between the gas company and conservationists is possible.
On behalf of SG, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association countered the senators’ request last month by writing to Salazar and Vilsack, claiming more public input is improper and legally unjustified, and that the BLM review process ought to continue moving forward without delay.
The Wilderness Workshop letter claims the BLM can legally consider the strong local opposition to the drilling proposal and that the BLM must perform a more intensive environmental analysis while reviewing it.
The Workshop also contests assertions that the Coalition and the senators are needlessly politicizing the unitization.
“What the industry refers to as ‘politicization’ is nothing more than a request to allow for more public involvement in a decision that affects nearby residents who work, live, and recreate in and around the area to be unitized,” it reads. “There is no legal or policy justification for refusing to accommodate such a public discussion.”
It also claims that 13 of the 18 leases in the unitization request are barred from drilling by a recent federal court decision upholding the 2001 “roadless rule.” Enacted by President Bill Clinton as he left office, that rule bestowed strict protections on roadless areas including much of the Thompson Divide, but was tweaked to allow for more development — including the Divide area leases — in later years.