Proposed Thompson Divide lease swap wins tentative support

Advocates for protecting the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development voiced tentative support this morning for a proposed lease swap that would help accomplish that.

The proposal also is eliciting some immediate tentative concern because it could result in more leased acreage in the North Fork Valley, where some area residents are opposed to drilling.

SG Interests and Ursa Resources are proposing trading leases in the Thompson Divide area, southwest of Glenwood Springs, for other acreage in northwest Colorado.

The companies went before Garfield County commissioners this morning to seek their support for the federal legislation that would make the exchanges possible.

“This is obviously a first step in what promises to be a lengthy process,” Eric Sanford of SG Interests told the commissioners.

He said SG has been consulting with the staffs of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, about the proposal.

Governments, ranchers, recreationists and others in the Roaring Fork Valley have been trying to protect more than 200,000 acres of Thompson Divide acreage from being developed, but about 100,000 acres already are leased for drilling. Much of the immediate attention has focused on SG’s efforts to develop its acreage there.

Under its proposal, it would trade its roughly 30,000 acres of leases there for about 30,000 acres on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. The largely contiguous acreage SG is seeking is roughly west and north of, but not immediately adjacent to, its leases in the Bull Mountain area southwest of McClure Pass. Sanford said that while SG initially is proposing an acre-for-acre swap, the Bureau of Land Management would have to evaluate the oil and gas development value of the lands involved to determine what’s actually a fair exchange.

Meanwhile, Ursa is proposing trading some 12,000 acres in Thompson Divide for a similar amount in Rio Blanco County. Ursa is targeting two parcels southeast of Rangely and east of Colorado Highway 139.

Rio Blanco commissioners have approved a letter supporting the swap legislation, but only if it doesn’t include language preventing future leasing of the affected Thompson Divide lands.

Sanford said that to keep things simple, the legislation SG is seeking wouldn’t permanently withdraw SG’s Thompson Divide acreage from leasing. However, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has proposed a new oil and gas plan that would close Thompson Divide acreage from future leasing over the life of that plan. Also, Bennet has been pushing separate legislation to withdraw Thompson Divide acreage from leasing, including acreage that’s already under lease in cases when leaseholders voluntarily relinquish those leases.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been seeking to protect that area from drilling, called the exchange proposal an important first step.

“We’re hopeful that both the coalition and the counties both on the giving and receiving end will have a seat at the table and the ability to provide input as the legislation takes shape and the negotiations continue,” he said.

Peter Hart, staff attorney with the Wilderness Workshop environmental group, said his organization supports the proposal “in concept as a potential solution to concerns that we’ve had.”

He said the Wilderness Workshop wants to make sure the proposed solution “really is a solution to all of these problems” and doesn’t create new ones.

One immediate concern the SG proposal is raising is the prospect of more North Fork Valley drilling. Mike Drake is president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, which is concerned about possible air and water impacts of existing and proposed drilling in the North Fork Valley, and possible harm to the region’s agricultural and tourism industries.

He told Garfield commissioners the chamber wants to make sure the proposed swap “is solving many important problems and not creating new ones.” He said the chamber has yet to see the details of the proposal, including what acreage SG is seeking to obtain, and would like to have the opportunity to comment before legislation goes forward. He also urged Garfield commissioners to consider what the proposal could mean “for all your neighbors and us on the other side of McClure Pass.”

In an interview, Sanford said the BLM has told him that the acreage SG is seeking has been nominated by someone else to be offered at a lease sale, so if SG doesn’t end up with it, another company might. The land has been designated by the Forest Service as available for leasing. Roughly two-thirds of it is in Delta County and one-third is in Mesa County, with the exception of about 600 acres that are in Gunnison County.

Garfield commissioners hope next week to approve a letter of support that includes the caveat that communities on the receiving end of the lease swap are OK with it.

Said Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, “I’m optimistic about this, and the fact that there is communication back and forth, and hopefully in the future a solution that will make all parties happy.”




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