More than 76,000 comments were submitted in just 30 days from individuals, organizations and local governments after the Bureau of Land Management announced its decision in late July regarding 65 previously issued oil and gas leases on the White River National Forest.
That vast majority of those came via form letters circulated by groups including the Thompson Divide Coalition and various conservation groups. More detailed critiques were provided by a consortium of conservation groups and energy trade organizations, BLM spokesman David Boyd said.
“We will take a detailed look at the comments, but at this time we are still planning on a Record of Decision this fall,” Boyd said of the just-concluded availability period during which additional comments were accepted.
As expected, comments ran the gamut from those supportive of the pending decision to cancel 25 leases in the Thompson Divide portion of the review area to those adamantly opposed, albeit from different ends of the spectrum, regarding the plan to allow the remaining 40 leases to continue.
The retroactive analysis was launched two years ago to address deficiencies in the original environmental review. The BLM, after issuing the leases between 1995 and 2012, acknowledged that it had failed to adopt a 1993 Forest Service EIS regarding oil and gas leasing on the WRNF, or to do its own analysis.
Conservation groups have long argued that the oversight resulted in illegally issued leases that should be canceled outright, and rules regarding surface disturbances contained in the updated 2015 forest leasing plan applied as new leasing occurs.
The updated forest plan also removes most of the Thompson Divide area from consideration for new leases over the next 20 years.
Energy companies and trade groups have said the lack of a BLM analysis was an administrative error that should not impact existing leases, some of which are in production or grouped with other leases that have producing wells.
“Garfield County remains concerned that an administrative error affecting a few leases continues to cause significant disruption to the orderly development of 65 existing leases and associated federal units in the surrounding area,” the county states in a comment letter ratified by county commissioners on Tuesday.
“This disruption has adversely impacted the local economy of western Garfield County and reduced county and special taxing district revenue streams needed to sustain our communities,” the county concludes.
However, the commissioners also indicated that the county “accepts” the BLM’s preferred alternative regarding the undeveloped Thompson Divide area leases, with the exception of some leases in neighboring Mesa County that would be canceled under the plan.
Two trade organizations, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Western Energy Alliance, in a joint letter sent to the BLM on Sept. 2, said they oppose any lease cancellations.
“It is the strongly held opinion of the trades that the lease contracts in question have always been and continue to be valid, as they were entered into in good faith by all parties, including the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and the purchasers of the leases,” the joint trade letter states.
In addition, the letter reiterates the trade organizations’ belief that the BLM should consider a new U.S. Geological Survey report indicating a 40-fold increase in recoverable natural gas within the Piceance Basin than previously thought.
“Despite the fact that the BLM agrees that the USGS report is the ‘best available scientific information to inform BLM’s [review] process, the BLM decided to simply give ‘lip service’ to its importance, but not let it interfere with the agency’s self-imposed schedule to issue a record of decision this fall,” the letter states.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 14 conservation groups including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado, Natural Resources Defense Council and others, gave a mixed review of the BLM’s likely decision.
Cancellation of the 25 Thompson Divide leases “will correct the fundamental errors that occurred when these leases were issued, and which have prevented them from expiring,” those groups said in a letter to the BLM, also dated Sept. 2.
Most of the divide-area leases were due to expire in recent years before the BLM extended them in order to conduct the new analysis.
“It will also protect a landscape that supports local ranchers, hunters and anglers, recreationists, and the businesses that depend on those existing uses,” the conservation letter states.
At the same time, the groups argue that those same protections should be given to the area covered by the other 40 leases, 27 of which would be allowed to continue under the 1993 rules while 13 would have to comply with the 2015 forest plan.
An earlier draft BLM proposal would have included those newer stipulations on all of the non-canceled leases.
“That plan would have added protections for roadless lands, wildlife habitat, water, plants and soils,” the conservation groups argued. “While the 27 leases have received less media attention than the Thompson Divide, the lands they cover are no less important.”
The Thompson Divide Coalition, in a letter circulated among its supporters to sign and send to the BLM individually, applauded the agency for moving to cancel the Divide-area leases.
“We are a coalition of strange bedfellows,” the coalition letter states. “We are Republicans and Democrats, snowmobilers and environmentalists, ranchers and mountain bikers, and we’ve all come together to protect these public lands for the long term.
“BLM’s decision to cancel the 25 improperly issued leases in the Thompson Divide is an important step towards realizing that goal.”
The TDC has also taken issue with industry claims that canceling leases is improper, pointing out that there is a strong precedent for canceling improperly issued leases.
According to BLM’s public database, more than 120 federal leases have been canceled entirely or canceled in part over the last five years alone, the coalition pointed out at the time the BLM announced its decision in July.
Locally, the BLM has twice canceled leases in the Thompson Divide, including three in 2009 and four in 2010, after it was determined they were within the boundaries of Sunlight Mountain Resort ski area south of Glenwood Springs.