BLM office upholds Thompson Divide lease suspensions

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
The state director’s office for the Bureau of Land Management has upheld a local decision that affirmed the suspension of 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area.

The lease suspension, first announced by the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office in spring 2013 and extended in April through 2016, keeps alive the potential for drilling on 220,000 acres of public lands outside of Carbondale. Gas exploration companies SG Interests, which owns 18 leases in the area, and Ursa Resources, which has seven, requested the suspensions because the leases were set to expire between June and September of 2013.

Conservation groups and a contingent of local interests opposed to drilling in the area known as the Thompson Divide Coalition argue that the leases were illegally issued in the first place and should have been allowed to expire.

The Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners, town councils in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, and the environmental nonprofit Wilderness Workshop, requested a “state director review” of the decision to approve the suspension request. A letter dated Aug. 14 announced that the state had upheld the local office’s decision on the suspension.

The BLM has acknowledged deficiency in the lease sale, in that there was not strict compliance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) procedures. It has initiated a new review of the leases. The agency argues that suspending the leases is proper given the ongoing review.

“The Colorado River Valley Field Office correctly observed that suspension is generally the BLM’s initial and preferred first step in remedying a procedural fault in issuing a federal oil and gas lease ...,” says the letter explaining the decision to uphold from Lonny Bagley, the BLM’s deputy state director for energy, lands and minerals.

Wilderness Workshop’s objections to the leases centered on three points: BLM improperly granted the suspension based on the “totality of circumstances,” even though none of the circumstances relied on would itself justify suspension; suspension was improper because the leases were sold in violation of applicable laws and under conditions that BLM has recognized as making them [invalid]; and BLM violated NEPA by relying on a categorical exclusion to suspend the leases and not conditioning the suspension on reserving the right to deny all drilling on the leases.

The BLM also found that the gas companies have been diligent in seeking to develop the leases, overruling another point raised by opponents to drilling.