By John Stroud
An exchange of oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide region for leases on public lands elsewhere in nearby western Colorado counties is being pitched as a solution to the long-standing dispute over drilling in the area south of Glenwood Springs.
Garfield County commissioners are scheduled to consider a letter of support for the deal on Monday.
It is being put forward by two energy companies, SG Interests and Ursa Operating Co., which together hold about two dozen undeveloped federal oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide.
Those leases are currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management as part of a larger re-analysis of 65 leases in the southern White River National Forest straddling Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa counties.
The proposal urges Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and 3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton, to carry legislation supporting a lease exchange, which could resolve the issues and leave the already largely undeveloped 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area untouched.
“Both SG and Ursa have approached us about signing a letter of support,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in regards to two different versions of the letter that are on the table for the Monday morning discussion.
“This could be a very positive step on both sides, and hopefully there will be room to negotiate and move this forward,” Jankovksy said.
Zane Kessler, executive director for the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been working for years to acquire or otherwise have the Thompson Divide leases retired, said he was aware that the lease holders were preparing a proposed settlement.
However, he reserved comment until the Monday meeting, when he said he hopes to learn more details of the proposal.
A draft letter to be reviewed by the commissioners reads, “The board believes that the proposed federally-legislated exchange is consistent with the county’s position that the possibility of oil and gas development and access concerns in the Thompson Divide should be removed, but that the Thompson Divide oil and gas lessees’ legal rights should be recognized.”
As proposed, SG Interests would give up 18 federal leases and other interests in the Thompson Divide area, including the Wolf Creek rights where a natural gas compressor station exists, for leases covering about the same amount of land, 30,000 acres, in Delta and Mesa counties on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.
Likewise, Ursa would give up its seven leases covering about 12,000 acres in the Thompson Divide, for a similar amount of acreage on the White River National Forest in Rio Blanco County.
Rio Blanco commissioners on March 26 signed a letter supporting the Ursa portion of the settlement proposal.
Similar to the recent settlement over leases on the Roan Plateau, which is still pending final review by the BLM, the Thompson Divide settlement would involve giving up some leasing rights in favor of being allowed to move forward on other leases, Jankovsky said.
“It’s a little different in that the Roan agreement was negotiated before it came to the local communities, and this one is coming to us first,” he said.
SG Interests’ regional representative Eric Sanford, who is expected to attend the Monday meeting with Garfield County, could not be reached for comment.
But Don Simpson of Ursa said the potential settlement should make those who want to preserve the Thompson Divide area happy.
“If we can get everyone behind this and pull it off, I think it should make a lot of people happy,” Simpson said.
Rio Blanco commissioners, in their letter, did make it clear that they do not support any legislative language that would prevent future leasing in the Thompson Divide.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams recently issued a decision removing the Thompson Divide from leasing for the next 20 years, although that decision has been formally objected to by industry groups. Sen. Bennet has been working on legislation that would permanently remove the area from future leasing.