BLM officials hear pleas to void oil and gas leases

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism
About 80 people showed up at a meeting in Aspen on Thursday on whether the BLM should void 65 oil and gas leases in the region, including 25 in the Thompson Divide area.

Two-thirds of the way through the meeting in the basement of the Pitkin County Library, every person who had spoke urged the 13 BLM officials in attendance to cancel the leases, which were first authorized in a 1993 environmental impact statement.

“We’re very much in favor of voiding the leases, specifically within the Thompson Divide area,” said Rob Ittner, the chair of the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners.

Ittner said all five county commissioners strongly agreed that the Thompson Divide area “needs to be protected.”

The Thompson Divide area gets its names from Thompson and Divide creeks and is defined by conservation organizations such as Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition as including 221,500 acres of land, including 88,100 acres in Pitkin County.

The meeting was a formal scoping meeting for the BLM, which is preparing an environmental impact statement on the leases to correct a mistake made under the National Environmental Policy Act when the leases were first approved by the BLM.

The leases are all on Forest Service land, mainly in an arc between Carbondale and DeBeque, and were designated by the agency as appropriate for leasing in the last two management plans for the White River National Forest. The BLM manages the mineral rights under the Forest Service land and so also manages the leases.

The EIS is not looking at the issue of future leases being created by the BLM, only the 65 existing leases in question. Of the 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area, seven are held by Ursa Resources and 18 are held by SG Interests.

David Boyd, a public affairs specialist with the BLM, said at the meeting that of the 34 oil and gas wells drilled in the Thompson Divide area since 1947, 31 of them found gas. That’s why, in part, the BLM still labels the area as having a “high potential” for future drillers to find gas. Today, there is one well producing in the area.

Earlier this week, about 225 people attended a Carbondale meeting hosted by the BLM and about 125 attended a meeting in Glenwood Springs. The comments at those meetings also heavily favored the BLM walking away from the 25 leases in the relatively pristine Thompson Divide area.

 Cary Tozer/Special to the Aspen Daily News
David Boyd, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Land Management, speaks to the crowd gathered Thursday afternoon at the Pitkin County Library. Managers called the meeting to take public comment on energy companies’ plans to drill in the Thompson Divide outside of Carbondale.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) attended the meeting in Carbondale and urged that the Thompson Divide area be protected.

Among the BLM officials in attendance at the meeting in Aspen were Steve Bennett, the manager of the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt, and Ruth Welch, the Director of the BLM’s National Operations Center in Denver.

“We know there is a lot of concern on both sides of the equation,” Bennett said in his opening remarks.

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman stood up Thursday to read a statement to the BLM officials. He called the leases “illegal” and said that citizens and local governments have told the BLM “again, again and again” to void the leases.

He asked the BLM officials, “what price does BLM put on our environment?” And he told them that Pitkin County had invested heavily in protecting land on the eastern edge of the Thompson Divide in Jerome Park.

Also making pleas to the BLM were Zane Kessler, the executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition and Will Roush, the director of conservation at Wilderness Workshop, which has worked for years to protect the area and helped lead the legal battle to have an Interior Dept. court declare that the previous NEPA work on the 65 leases was insufficient.

Kessler noted that in 1905 Teddy Roosevelt went bear hunting in the Thompson Divide area and called it a “great wild country” and remarked on the complex nature of the land.

Today, Kessler said, the land remains almost unchanged from that time.

“Please consider an alternative that cancels the leases in the Thompson Divide area,” he told the BLM officials.

The BLM must decide through the EIS process whether the leases will be voided, left as is, or modified in some fashion.

Roush of Wilderness Workshop made a plea to the BLM officials to go beyond technical aspects of the question at hand and to consider how intensely personal the issue had become to many local residents.

“Most of us are not here for technical reasons,” he said. “We’re here for emotional reasons. Our community is united to provide a legacy of protection.”

The BLM is holding another scoping meeting at the community center in DeBeque on May 1 and is taking comments on the leases until May 16.

A draft EIS from the BLM is expected in 2015 and final EIS and a decision are expected in 2016.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.