Official: ‘Vast majority’ in support of canceling leases in Thompson Divide

Public comments on a Bureau of Land Management proposed action concerning contested oil and gas leases in Western Colorado continued to pour in at the Friday deadline, with the total topping 50,000.

According to David Boyd, northwest Colorado public affairs officer for the BLM, most of the responses were in favor of canceling leases in the Thompson Divide area.

“Around 99 percent are various email letters from various websites,” he said. “And the vast majority [of comments] are in favor of canceling leases in the Thompson Divide, or all the leases [outright].”

In November, the BLM released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that analyzed the leases, including 25 in the Thompson Divide. In the proposed action, alternative four, the BLM would either wholly or partially cancel the leases in the Divide, and modified 40 others to “provide different restrictions designed to mitigate impacts from oil and gas development.”

The rub is over the legality of the leases, which are owned by Houston-based energy companies SG Interests and Ursa Resources, and have been scrutinized for years.

The BLM’s draft EIS determined that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis for the 65 existing leases “is no longer adequate due to changes in laws, regulations, policies and conditions.”

Boyd said almost all of the email responses were from environmental groups, and each would be read to focus on the personal comments. He added that the more detailed they comments are, the more weight they’ll carry.

“We’re having groups send us 2,000 email letters at a time,” Boyd said. “They’re still coming in, and in the case of email, in big batches.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a statement in support of the BLM’s proposed action, calling the White River National Forest a “Colorado treasure.”

“The proposed action in BLM’s recently released Draft EIS for previously issued oil and gas leases in the WRNF wisely incorporates the U.S. Forest Service’s updated management plan for future oil and gas leasing on the Forest,” Hickenlooper said. “That plan allows for continued leasing in the most prospective portions of the Forest and in areas where infrastructure already exists, while closing to future leasing areas where there is little or no potential for oil and gas and where there is no existing production. I support the WRNF’s oil and gas management plan and BLM’s proposed action.”

He added that he would “like to see Congress work together to find a mutually beneficial solution that protects the Thompson Divide.”

Boyd said that the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop and Thompson Divide Coalition wrote very detailed letters, as did industry groups, leaseholders, and county and municipal governments.

“We consider each letter as submission individually, and comb through them looking for the specific comments,” Boyd explained. “We’ll use all of the information to decide on a preferred alternative in our final EIS. All the specific comments will be listed in that document.”

The comment period began on Nov. 20.

Industry sees process as political

A joint statement from the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Western Energy Alliance panned the proposed action, saying that it will lead to economic woes.

“The Associations are very concerned that BLM has engaged in an overly politicized process with a pre-determined outcome,” the statement notes. “Local communities have expressed legitimate concerns about economic declines and job loss that will result from the DEIS, but BLM has ignored those concerns.”

The two groups opined that “political interference and direction from Washington D.C.” led to the BLM failing in its legal mandate to “balance environmental interests with the economic needs,” calling the document “biased.”

The statement added that the groups are opposed to any cancellations of leases based on “retroactive analysis,” or any new stipulations or modifications of the existing leases.

Of the five alternatives initially mulled, industry only supports alternative one, which wouldn’t affect any leases in question. The joint letter said that alternative two, which adds lease stipulations, would potentially be acceptable.

It also questioned the BLM’s legal authority to cancel the leases under the Mineral Leasing Act.

“That authority is vested in the courts, and applies only to cases in which the lessee has failed to meet the terms of the contract,” the statement noted.

But Peter Hart, attorney for Wilderness Workshop, said the illegally-issued leases threaten the natural and community values that are so important in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“This place is cherished by residents and visitors alike for its wildlife, unparalleled recreation opportunities, prodigious hunting and fishing, world-class scenery and clean mountain air,” Hart said in a prepared statement. “People aren’t here to see industrial development — and there’s no reason that a bunch of illegal leases ought to be allowed to jeopardize existing public resources.”

Michael Freeman, an Earthjustice attorney who filed comments on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, opined that all the leases in question should be cancelled.

“BLM recognizes that the leases were issued in violation of federal law,” he said. “Our comments argue that the agency should cancel all of these improperly-issued leases. Doing so would wipe the slate clean and allow the government to fully protect these lands from drilling.”

Final EIS due this summer

Each comment will now be sent to a specialist: wildlife comments will go to a wildlife biologist, and submissions on oil and gas leasing will go to and oil and gas specialist, he explained.

The oil and gas industry had asked that the comment period be extended, but the BLM denied that request.

“We received a lot of requests to extend the comment period,” Boyd said. “We definitely considered those comments and requests, but it was open for a total of 51 days. And for this EIS we felt it was adequate time to [go over the document].”

He added that the comments will now be reviewed, and a final EIS will be released this summer. That will be followed by a 30-day public review, and then a final record of decision will be determined.

The leases in question 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.

collin@aspendailynews.com