By Marci Krivonen
A local advocacy group is holding several meetings this week to rally drilling opponents. The Thompson Divide Coalition is trying to keep oil and gas operators out of the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale by building grassroots opposition. The group hopes to garner support by taking people high above Thompson Divide, for a bird’s eye view.
A small airplane takes flight at a no-frills airstrip in Glenwood Springs. The plane is one of two aircraft taking college students above the Thompson Divide area.
Eco-Flight operates the planes and for today’s event, it’s partnering with the Thompson Divide Coalition and the Wilderness Workshop. All these organizations want to protect the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development so, they’re flying the students over lands dotted with gas well pads and roads and conversely, over wild areas with little development. Zane Kessler is Executive Director of the Thompson Divide Coalition.
"To be able to visualize that fragmentation of the landscape is key to understanding how oil and gas development will impact this small area."
The Coalition has been working for years to keep oil and gas development out of this area. The land they’re concerned with covers about a quarter of a million acres near Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Redstone and Paonia.
Six energy companies own mineral leases there, but little activity is happening. Recently though, the Houston-based SG Interests told the Bureau of Land Management it’s surveying for possible natural gas drilling sites. Kessler says, "That raises the sense of urgency, and while the sky certainly isn’t falling and we do have an opportunity to engage the federal agencies who will make the final decision, we need to make sure that we’re unified as a community."
A BLM spokesman says SG Interests has contacted the agency about surveying, but has not yet filed official paperwork. A public process would ramp up if the company decided to move ahead with drilling.
Regardless, the Thompson Divide Coalition feels this initial move by SG signals an ambition to drill, and soon. In response, the Coalition is holding community meetings all this week to gather support for its efforts to keep energy development out of the Thompson Divide.
Back on the Glenwood Airstrip, the CU-Boulder students are circled around Will Rousch from the Wilderness Workshop. He’s answering questions about the possible purchase of mineral leases from the lease-holders in the Thompson Divide. It’s a proposal the Coalition set in motion last winter.
The group offered a total of $2.5 million to the companies. Director Zane Kessler says they have been in discussions with some of the operators, including SG, the most active leaseholder. Executives there showed no interest at first, but Kessler says the Coalition continues to work with SG executives. In a news release put out yesterday, SG says that’s not true. The company rejected the Coalition’s offer.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin says he prefers a congressional solution rather than a buy-out of leases. The County Board has voiced support for allowing development there but limiting it and minimizing impacts from roads and pipelines.
"We want to find a solution, we think there is a solution, we’re not into over-development, we’re not into you-have-to development, there are certain rules and regulations and property rights at stake for the people that paid for it and who have a right to attempt to develop it."
Kessler says the Coalition is pursuing legislation resembling a bill Congressman John Salazar planned to introduce to congress before he lost his seat. The Garfield County Commissioners supported that bill. Now, the Thompson Divide Coalition is working to find a new congressional sponsor.
In the months ahead, the Coalition will be raising money to fund an economic study that will calculate the benefits to local businesses of the Thompson Divide area being wild and largely undeveloped. Kessler hopes that becomes another tool in the toolbox to fight for the land.