Preferred alternative would cancel all leases on the Thompson Divide

The Bureau of Land Management unveiled a new preliminary preferred alternative for 65 contested oil and gas leases at a meeting in Silt on Wednesday. The preliminary decision would see all leases in the Thompson Divide area voided, providing a win for conservationists that have fought for the controversial area’s protection for years.

In a move that the agency sees as striking a balance between conservation and making oil and gas companies whole on their investments, 25 undeveloped leases in the Divide would be cancelled in their entirety, while the rest of the 65 would be covered under two proposed alternatives.

According to David Boyd, northwest Colorado public affairs officer for the BLM, the preferred alternative is a blend of alternatives in the draft Environmental Impact Statement issued last year.

“Basically, the preliminary preferred alternative would apply alternative two to leases that are held by production and apply alternative four to undeveloped leases, except it would cancel 25 leases [in Thompson Divide] in full,” he wrote in an email.

Five alternatives were initially mulled by the BLM, and ranged from canceling all leases to taking no action.

Initially, alternative two would have added some additional restrictions, while alternative four aimed to either wholly or partially cancel the leases in the Divide, and modify 40 others to “provide different restrictions designed to mitigate impacts from oil and gas development.”

“Alternative two would be applied to the 23 leases that are currently held by production,” Boyd wrote in the email. “This addresses minor inconsistencies between leases and the original 1993 Forest Service decision.”

He added that four expired leases under appeal could also be included under alternative two, depending on how the appeal process turns out, but that only one of the total 27 would be modified with “an additional timing limitation.”

New stipulations on an additional 13 undeveloped leases analyzed in the EIS would follow the Forest Service’s 2015 decision for future oil and gas leasing that places much of the White River National Forest off limits to future oil and gas development.

Boyd said feedback from the public process and cooperating agencies aided in the decision.

“This reflects concerns that the Forest Service and public had over potential oil and gas development,” he said Wednesday. “But it also keeps producing leases as they are, which was a concern for Mesa County and the industry.”

Boyd said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely took part in the meeting, as well as representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Garfield and Mesa counties, Carbondale, Parachute, and New Castle.

He added that this preferred alternative will be in the final EIS, which will be available in July. It will then go through a 30-day public-review period before being finalized.

Conservation groups happy with 
preferred alternative

Peter Hart, attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said the group is pleased that the process is moving along, and issues with the leases have been allowed to drag on for far too long.

“Those leases should have expired years ago, but were put on life support by BLM suspension decisions,” Hart wrote in an email. “If BLM isn’t going to let those leases expire by their own terms, canceling the leases is the right decision.”

Hart added that Wilderness Workshop is still assessing the details of the proposal.

“A good decision will ensure protection of the Thompson Divide, as well as roadless values and myriad critical public land values that exist within the illegal leases outside of the Divide,” he said.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, called the preferred alternative an “equitable approach that protects the Thompson Divide while upholding more prospective leases in the center of the Piceance Basin,” in a prepared statement.

The Thompson Divide encompasses 221,500 acres of federal land west of Carbondale that stretches from the Sunlight ski area near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass, crossing into Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties.

During a 51-day public comment period that ended in early January, more than 50,000 responses were received by the BLM, the vast majority of which called for the cancellation of the leases.

“Our rural communities have expended significant time and effort to work with BLM in this process.” said Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot in a prepared statement. “We appreciate that the agency is listening to our concerns, and we urge them to move forward as soon as possible.”

Industry feels vindicated by 
critical op-ed

David Ludlum, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said he is standing behind an opinion piece in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel written by Jim Cagney, a former Northwest Colorado district manager for the BLM and 37-year employee, in which he is critical of the process.

“For much of my BLM career, a lease conveyed a straight forward right to develop the resource,” Cagney wrote. “In the modern era, it is apparent that, at least initially, a BLM lease conveys only an exclusive right to negotiate with the BLM pursuant to environmental analysis.”

He added that the Thompson Divide debate has created an assumption that no BLM land decision is truly final, and the multi-use nature of public lands is in jeopardy.

“This is one of the more powerful comments on the debate,” Ludlum said. “This is a huge vindication for us. … The timing of his column was great and we’re standing behind his position.”

Ludlum added that it took a lot of courage for Cagney to speak out against his long-time employer.

The contested leases were issued between 1995 and 2012, and the majority are located in Mesa, Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties — almost entirely on Forest Service land. One additional lease is northeast of Meeker.

The legality of the leases, which are owned by Houston-based energy companies SG Interests and Ursa Resources, has been scrutinized for years, with many arguing that they didn’t go through the proper National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis. A draft BLM EIS determined that the NEPA analysis for the existing leases “is no longer adequate due to changes in laws, regulations, policies and conditions.”

collin@aspendailynews.com