Congressman calls oil and gas leases on public land ‘private property’
Congressman Scott Tipton told a crowd in Glenwood Springs on Thursday that he views contested oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area as private property, and believes a Bureau of Land Management proposed action in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that would void or alter the contracts constitutes a takings.
But several members of the community and local environmental groups balked at that sentiment, saying that the leases were issued illegally in the first place. They argued that support should be given to BLM alternative four, which would cancel all or part of 25 leases in the Thompson Divide, and place stipulations on 40 others adjacent to its boundary.
The draft EIS was issued late last year, and identified five potential alternatives for handling the contested leases, which are owned by Houston-based energy companies SG Interests and Ursa Resources.
Tipton, R-Cortez, addressed this topic and several others in a special meeting with the Garfield County commissioners that was attended by around 40 locals, the majority of which were there to discuss the controversial ecological gem just outside of Carbondale. The congressman mostly listened to the suggestions and concerns of those in attendance before commenting.
Tipton said there still are opportunities to create a win-win and protect the lease holders’ rights as well as the environment.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said the county has long wanted the Thompson Divide Coalition and industry to work together to reach an agreement that each side could support, calling it a “special area.”
“The Thompson Divide area is unique, and does have high-quality water, is wildlife range, and is used for grazing,” he said. “But on the other side, there are 25 leases or so that have been let and are owned by energy companies and they are, at least in my opinion, private property.”
Jankovsky said the oil and gas leases are no different than a right given to a ski company or a rancher to run cattle on public lands.
The Garfield County commissioners previously supported alternative two, which would modify eight leases in the area with additional restrictions. That alternative was supported, 2-1, with Commissioner John Martin casting the dissenting vote.
“I think the takings and the property right were a big part of that,” Jankovsky said. He added that he believes the BLM’s proposed action came at the behest of powers in Washington, D.C.
During a public comment period from Nov. 20 to Jan. 8, close to 60,000 statements were received by the BLM, with the vast majority supporting cancellation of the leases, said David Boyd, northwest Colorado public affairs officer for the agency, earlier this month.
Martin told the audience that he felt the process had been hijacked from its original intent, and “taken down an extreme highway from both sides.”
Long-time local pilot Bruce Gordon, president of EcoFlight, told Tipton that locals are being affected by the leases, stressing that they are on public lands, and the issue needs to be determined at the local level.
Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, deferred the first comments to David Ludlum, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, who was present via a conference call with other members of industry.
Ludlum said industry supports the concept of a lease swap in the area, but it must address a “litany of concerns” industry has.
A proposed swap would allow SG Interests to acquire some 30,000 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests in exchange for withdrawing leases in the Thompson Divide area in both Pitkin and Garfield counties.
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 U.S. Forest Service land.
According to a BLM executive summary in 2007, the Interior Board of Land Appeals “ruled that before including U.S. Forest Service parcels in an oil and gas lease sale, the BLM must either formally adopt a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis completed by the Forest Service or conduct a NEPA analysis of its own.”
The BLM’s draft EIS determined that the NEPA analysis for the 65 existing leases “is no longer adequate due to changes in laws, regulations, policies and conditions,” the summary adds.
Kessler took Tipton to task on comments he made this month on the House floor, and reiterated in a recent editorial, in which he said the BLM’s proposed action sets a dangerous precedent, and called the IBLA’s findings the result of “administrative oversight.”
“The BLM succumbed to political pressure from environmental extremists and determined to revisit every one of the leases issued since 1993,” Tipton wrote in the op-ed.
The congressman also questioned the BLM’s motives for not approving a request by industry to extend the public comment period.
“One can only conclude that the BLM is afraid of the scrutiny that could result from its effectuating a government taking of property rights under the guise of rectifying an administrative error from over 20 years ago,” he wrote.
The Secretary of the Interior does have the power to cancel extraction leases that haven’t undergone the proper environmental process. This power was acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 case, Boesche v. Udall.
“The Secretary, under his general powers of management over the public lands, has authority to cancel such a lease administratively for invalidity at its inception, unless such authority was withdrawn by the Mineral Leasing Act,” that case’s determination found.
Peter Hart, attorney for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said after the meeting that it’s disingenuous for Tipton to refer to those findings as a clerical error, stressing that the process didn’t take into account NEPA or the Endangered Species Act at the time of issuance.
Glenwood Springs council member Kathryn Trauger and former GarCo commissioner Trési Houpt spoke in support of BLM alternative four. Carbondale town trustee Katrina Byers said that while she understands the need for oil and gas development, the importance of the watershed in the Thompson Divide is paramount, asking for permanent protection for the area. Former Pitkin County commissioner Dorothea Farris urged the congressman to visit Carbondale and Aspen to meet with his constituents there.
Opposition to being called ‘environmental extremists’
Kessler told Tipton that town meetings held throughout the Roaring Fork Valley have been packed with people in favor of protecting of the Thompson Divide, which hardly reflects a process being operated from Washington.
“[There have been] numerous town halls packed to the gills, 300 to 400 people standing outside in the cold winter in order to get a spot in the room to make their voices heard to our federal government,” he said. “You described this process that is now approaching its conclusion … as abusing private property rights, and you described the process as setting a disturbing precedent, and you concluded it as being described as being ran by a bunch of environmental extremists.”
Kessler noted scoping comments made by energy companies, local governments, and the members of the TDC — local business owners, ranchers, and elected officials — asking the BLM expedite its analysis. He added that oil and gas leases have been cancelled in the area for the same reasons in the past, even under the George W. Bush administration.
“That’s concerning when you describe us as environmental extremists,” he said.
Kessler added that the leases are held for a 10-year term on public land, and shouldn’t be considered private property.
“I would ask that you please stop referring to them as private property rights,” he said.
Tipton replied to the scrutiny by saying that the beauty of the system is people have the right to disagree, and was steadfast in his belief that the leases amount to private property.
“It is on public lands, but the … federal government put that out for a right for responsible development,” he said. “So that becomes a private property right.”
Health insurance, housing very costly
Jankovsky discussed the extremely high cost of health insurance in the area, saying that it’s hit around 170 percent of the cost in metro Denver for individual coverage.
“In rural Colorado right now, we have some of the highest insurance rates in the U.S.,” he said. “We have a high cost of living here right now, and insurance is almost as high as mortgages.”
Jankovsky said that Colorado’s rate of uninsured is 6.7 percent, but that figure balloons to 11.7 percent in Garfield County.
“A family can expect to pay $2,000 a month for health insurance, and it isn’t very good insurance,” he said, adding that 26 percent of people are on Medicaid.
Commissioner Mike Samson said that anyone making under $100,000 in the area can’t afford health insurance.
“How are they going to live in Garfield County, specifically Glenwood and Carbondale, when you have such a horrendous amount of your income that has to go to healthcare?” he said “ … It just doesn’t work, so what people are doing to make it work … is they are not insured.”
Tipton said that a number of alternatives for health care are being worked on in the House.
“A lot of our rural communities are suffering from not only a cost issue, but an access issue as well,” Tipton said. “We’ve got a couple of bills I’ve co-sponsored, one by Tom Price, a medical doctor out of Georgia, the Empowering Patients First Act. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s a good point to address.”
Glenwood Springs resident Michael Blair told Tipton that the cost of housing is “destroying our communities,” and needs to come down. He said that while he supports free market enterprise, the local market is being exploited.
Blair noted that one real estate company is now referring to the lower valley down to New Castle as the “Aspen Valley.”
“I’m sure that’s a marketing ploy to increase values,” he said. “I’m all for that, I believe we should be able to get what we can, but perhaps up to a point. … People who live and work here and grew up here, can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Blair wanted Tipton to help private enterprise find a solution for more affordable housing that isn’t government-run.
Tipton said that while he’s not anti-regulation, as long as they are sensible, regulatory costs are hurting small businesses and adding to the housing burden.
He thanked all who attended, adding that the Third District is a very large area and he enjoys hearing from all sides of the issues.
“Nobody knows your issues like you do,” Tipton said.