Area nonprofit groups, ranchers and local government officials reacted strongly on Tuesday to the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to give a two-year extension on 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale that could be used for oil and gas drilling.
SG Interests holds 18 of the leases, and seven are held by Ursa Resources Group.
Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, sent out a press release on Tuesday saying that the organization — comprised of local ranchers, business owners and recreationalists — has renewed concerns.
However, “BLM’s decision extends existing suspensions in a way that prevents any development activity and preserves the government’s ability to unilaterally void leases in the future,” the release says.
BLM officials say the leases were extended because the agency is beginning a 30-day public scoping period as part of an environmental impact statement (EIS) to analyze 65 existing oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest.
The BLM is initiating an EIS to address National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) deficiencies identified by the Interior Board of Land Appeals for the 65 leases on the Western Slope.
Both SG and Ursa have pending development proposals that will not be analyzed by the Forest Service and BLM until the EIS is completed. Continuing the suspension of the leases pauses the 10-year deadline leaseholders have to begin developing the sites, according to a BLM press release.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop said in a press release Tuesday that it will ask the BLM to void the leases.
“The BLM has known for years that these leases were issued illegally,” said Wilderness Workshop staff attorney Peter Hart in the release. “The agency publicly admitted it a year ago, and now they’re finally making the first step to rectify it.”
According to Wilderness Workshop officials, the BLM explicitly stated that the process could result in the agency’s canceling the leases or modifying their terms to comply with the law. Hart noted that in 2009 the BLM declared a different set of leases issued under the same circumstances, with the same deficiencies, “void ab initio,” or invalid from the start.
“That’s exactly what the agency should do again in this case — just void the illegal leases,” he said in the release.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
A meadow in the Thompson Divide is covered in snowmobile tracks, as seen on a recent morning during a flight with local nonprofit Ecoflight. On Tuesday the Bureau of Land Management announced that it extended 18 leases held by SG Interests and seven leases held by Ursa Resources Group in the Thompson Divide through April 1, 2016.
Some of the 65 leases are in the Thompson Divide, the 220,000-acre area southwest of Carbondale that citizens have been campaigning to save from oil and gas development. More than half of the deficient leases, however, lie outside the Thompson Divide, stretching from upper West Divide Creek westward to Battlement Mesa and almost to DeBeque. While other organizations are focused solely on the Thompson Divide leases, the Wilderness Workshop is concerned with all 65 leases.
“The BLM’s decision to extend the Thompson Divide leases for an additional two years was not only wrong but was made in the face of massive public support for letting the leases expire,” said Wilderness Workshop conservation director Will Roush. “Now that they’ve begun the process that can and should cancel those leases, I’m sure the public message will be very clear: Just void the leases. ... Finally, the BLM has provided an opportunity for citizens to be heard.”
The 30-day “scoping period” gives the public a chance to tell the BLM what issues and concerns they think should be addressed in an EIS before the BLM begins drafting the document.
The BLM expects to release a draft of the EIS and alternatives for public review in early 2015. The BLM could then cancel the existing leases, modify the terms and conditions of the leases, or keep the existing terms and conditions of the leases in place.
While the existing leases are entirely on land managed by the White River National Forest, the BLM is conducting the EIS to address deficiencies in the existing environmental analyses for the leases.
The U.S. Forest Service determines which of its lands are available for oil and gas leasing, and had the lead on the environmental analysis for those decisions. The BLM must either formally adopt the Forest Service analysis or perform its own study. The BLM did not adopt the Forest Service analysis and is performing its own through the EIS.
The BLM has scheduled public meetings regarding the process as follows:
• April 15, Glenwood Springs Community Center, 4 to 7 p.m.
• April 16, Carbondale Town Hall, 4 to 7 p.m.
• April 17, Pitkin County Library in Aspen, 3 to 6 p.m.
Scoping comments need to be received by May 6 and may be emailed to WRNFleases@blm.gov; faxed to (970) 876-9090; or mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Colorado River Valley Field Office, 2300 River Frontage Road, Silt, CO 81652.
Additional information about the EIS scoping period is available at: http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo.