Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado on Wednesday introduced a new version of his bill aimed at protecting 172,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale and south toward Kebler Pass from future oil and gas leasing.
The bill, called the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act of 2017, would provide permanent protections in an area where two dozen previously issued but undeveloped leases were canceled in December.
It would also provide compensation for the former leaseholders who had their leases canceled by the Bureau of Land Management, as well as any remaining leaseholders in the affected area. That includes about 10,000 acres of subleases within the Wolf Creek Storage Field south of Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort that the BLM did not cancel, and for which drilling proposals have been filed.
"The bill reflects the voices of those who live, work and recreate in the Thompson Divide area," Bennet said in a news release issued Wednesday morning, the same day Congressman Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, was confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of the Interior under the Trump administration.
"We've taken great steps by working with these communities to reach a final resolution for long-term certainty and management of the Divide,” Bennet said. “This middle ground approach protects the land, and the local economies tied to it, from future energy development, while also ensuring that former leaseholders receive fair compensation to reinvest in other areas of Colorado."
The bill is a new version of a bill introduced in previous sessions of Congress by Bennet, who visited the area as recently as last August. Bennet said the bill was revised based on “extensive discussions with local communities, elected officials and oil and gas companies.
It would withdraw most of the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale and south of Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas development, while also preserving existing rights for current leaseholders and landowners, according to Bennet.
However, David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said that’s not necessarily the case under the proposal. Ludlam said the bill fails to compensate private mineral owners whose investments are tied to leases on the adjacent federal lands.
“They lose all of their value without any compensation on minerals for which they have been paying taxes,” Ludlam said.
Regarding Bennet’s proposal to permanently withdraw parts of federal lands from future leasing, “The American public owns these minerals, and to forever withdraw the mineral estate of taxpayers doesn’t account for what the future might hold for developing these resources.”
Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition, noted that numerous private mineral owners have supported the coalition of ranchers, outdoor recreation groups, business owners, elected officials and conservationists in support of the efforts to protect the area.
The TDC stands in support of Bennet’s bill, he said.
“It is encouraging to see that Senator Bennet is continuing to work with local governments and the broader community to conserve these lands for the next generation of ranchers, hunters and snowmobilers” Jason Sewell, a fifth-generation rancher in the Crystal River Valley and TDC board president, said in a separate release.
“This is a common-sense solution that respects the needs of all stakeholders,” he said. “It ensures ‘the greatest good for the greatest number' and our broad-based coalition supports it.”
The acreage to be withdrawn is based on requests and feedback from Garfield, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, as well as local oil and gas developer Gunnison Energy, which holds some of the leases in the area, according to the release from Bennet’s office. The release quoted elected officials from the three counties.
"Garfield County supports this middle-ground compromise that makes the energy companies whole, was developed with input from all sides, and provides a balanced solution to the Thompson Divide leasing issue," Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.
Added Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, "Pitkin County has long supported legislation to permanently protect the Thompson Divide and provide a fair and balanced solution to the contested leases in the area.
“The cancellation of many such leases last year was a major step forward in this effort, but we are still concerned about possible litigation that would cause years of continued uncertainty for Thompson Divide and the local communities that relies on the unique and sustainable natural environment for their livelihood from historic ranching to recreation and tourism,” Newman said.
Brad Robinson, president of Gunnison Energy, said his company also supports the compromise, which he said addresses concerns over access to areas where it will continue production on existing leases.
“This bill does that by balancing energy needs with the wishes of the community to keep some areas undeveloped along Thompson Divide and Kebler Pass,” Robinson said.
Robinson also applauded new provisions meant to promote the capture of energy from methane leaks into the atmosphere from old coal mines in the area. The bill creates a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing and abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River, on the far south end of the Thompson Divide area.
“These provisions will help bring jobs and economic growth to the North Fork Valley and also help the environment,” he said.
Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said the bill serves to balance energy production and conservation.
"We appreciate Senator Bennet working closely with us on this bill to ensure it reflects our input and protects those areas in our county such as Kebler pass and Thompson Divide that we feel are inappropriate for oil and gas production,” Houck said.
Bennet’s release concludes that the bill presents an option to avoid costly and drawn-out litigation by withdrawing from the Thompson Divide area altogether, in exchange for credits that could be used by former leaseholders to bid on new leases in areas determined appropriate through the National Environmental Policy Act.