As review of Divide leases starts, legal questions loom

by Nelson Harvey, Special to the Aspen Daily News

The U.S. Forest Service has launched an environmental review of six leases that the natural gas and oil company SG Interests hopes to drill in the Thompson Divide, even as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) weighs whether those same leases — and 74 others in the Divide — were issued illegally.

This week, SG Interests led a group of government scientists, Pitkin and Garfield County officials and Thompson Divide protection activists on a visit to four of their leases in the area.

In what felt at times like a high alpine cocktail party without libations, the throng of about 25 people milled about on Monday in a clearing in the Divide’s northwest corner known as lease 66942.

SG wants to drill an exploratory gas well there, and scientists from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife wandered the parcels recording the potential environmental hazards that drilling could pose to water, wildlife and human safety.

The list they returned with illustrated the fact that the Divide, a mostly pristine, 221,500-acre stretch between Sunlight Mountain and McClure Pass, is a veritable minefield of ecological values.

To begin with, lease 66942 sits right on the edge of a federally-designated roadless area where no “surface disturbance” of any kind is permitted.

There’s a wetland in the parcel’s southern corner, which helps to filter the water that eventually winds up in North Thompson Creek.

“I’d like to shift the pad to avoid the wetland,” said Mark Lacy, a Forest Service fish biologist, to SG Operations Land Manager Eric Sanford. “A 100-foot wet edge is preferable.”

Judy Perkins, a BLM ecologist, told Sanford that a rare plant survey of the premises also would be required. Forest Service biologist Phil Nyland mentioned that the proposed well pad was right in the middle of prime Lynx habitat.

“I’d like to see you minimize daily visits up here as much as possible,” Nyland said.

Others pointed out that the lease is in elk calving territory. Other SG leases in the area lie near conservation areas for Colorado River cutthroat trout. 

“I think the Forest Service and land management agencies today saw a whole host of red flags having to do with where SG is proposing to develop,” said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, after the visit. The coalition is a citizen group that hopes to purchase and retire the Divide gas leases owned by SG Interests, Ursa Resources and several other companies with a stake in the area.

Yet, despite the difficulty of skirting the Divide’s fragile ecology, Sanford said his company is confident that the gas lying below the contested area still makes economic sense to extract. 

“We know what’s south of here and it’s the same geology,” he said, referring to another highly productive exploratory well that the company has drilled in Gunnison County.

Several clouds looming for SG

 Chris Janjic/Special to the Aspen Daily News
Robert Wood, an engineer with SG Interests, points out various landmarks to federal and local government officials at a proposed gas drilling site in the Thompson Divide on Monday morning. Specialists from the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin and Garfield counties, the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife inspected proposed drilling sites in the area for potential environmental impacts.

The visits by government scientists to the area this week were triggered by SG’s decision to file applications for permits to drill on six of their 18 Thompson Divide leases beginning last fall.

Robbie Guinn, the company’s vice president, previously told the Aspen Daily News that the company filed those applications in part to prevent their leases from expiring, as was due to happen this summer.

In April, at the company’s request, the BLM “suspended” SG’s leases for one year, meaning that although they won’t expire, development can’t proceed.

The suspension won’t be lifted until the BLM concludes a broad review of whether 80 leases it has approved in the Divide area were legally doled out.

That review, which could take up to two years, was sparked by a 2007 decision by a board of land judges at the Department of Interior.

The judges ruled that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to adopt a 1993 Forest Service environmental analysis of the Thompson Divide leases before issuing them.

In response, the BLM decided to conduct its own environmental review of the leases, and what government scientists saw during site visits in the Divide this week will surely play into that document.

“We may keep the leases the same, we may modify them, or they may be canceled,” said David Boyd, the spokesman for Colorado River Valley field office of the BLM.

Boyd said that 10 of the leases now being reviewed for so-called “NEPA deficiencies” are either producing gas already or are part of a block of productive leases. All of those are in Garfield County. Pitkin County currently has no active gas wells. 

A clash in the Divide

On Monday morning, as the caravan of SUVs carrying gas company executives and government scientists was heading for SG’s Thompson Divide leases, it was met in Four Mile Meadow south of Sunlight by about 40 demonstrators holding anti-drilling signs.

“Keep our Cows,” read one. “We love the Thompson Divide,” read another.

“This valley is special and if we allow drilling here, it will just trigger more drilling,” said Barbara Andre, 70, of Basalt, as she wielded a sign inspired by Dr. Seuss’ famous arboreal savior, the Lorax. “Generally we’ve seen that happen around the country.”

The Carbondale environmental nonprofit group Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition had rallied the demonstrators on Monday morning to illustrate widespread public discontent with the idea of drilling in the area.

“This is a huge show of support for letting [the Divide] be,” said Wilderness Workshop staff attorney Peter Hart.

Still, Hart said the fate of the Divide might ultimately hinge on how the BLM rules on the legality of the 80 leases now in question.

“If they find that these leases are valid, it will be really tough for the Forest Service to deny these [drilling] applications,” he said.