Appeals court ruling on roadless areas raises questions about status of oil and gas leases

A recent federal appeals court ruling upholding a 2001 rule protecting national forest roadless areas is raising questions about the status of oil and gas leases issued in such areas over the last decade in Colorado and other states.

The Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation in Carbondale, says leases covering 70,000 acres were issued in Colorado roadless areas since 2001 without provisions to prevent road building, and there are about 300 such leases nationwide that are now in question.

“Really, it has implications nationwide on how this question is resolved,” said the group’s executive director, Sloan Shoemaker.

At issue are what are often called “gap” leases that were issued while the national roadless rule’s status has been in legal question. Although the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California had upheld the rule, a Wyoming judge found it to be illegal. But last week the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his ruling.

In Colorado, the gap-lease issue particularly has a bearing on efforts by a group called the Thompson Divide Coalition to try to keep drilling out of some 220,000 acres west of Carbondale and between Glenwood Springs and McClure Pass.

About 100,000 of those acres already have been leased for drilling.

Wilderness Workshop attorney Peter Hart said many of Colorado’s 70,000 gap-lease acres are within the Thompson Divide area. Some other affected areas include Mamm Peak south of Rifle and Springhouse Park outside Paonia.

The Thompson Divide Coalition especially is focusing on opposing a proposal by S G Interests to have the federal government group 16 of its leases and two other leases into a 32,000-acre unit. While proposed as a means of providing for orderly development, it also would enable the company to do minimal drilling to keep the leases from expiring.

Many of those S G leases are gap leases. Shoemaker said approving unitization isn’t possible as long as the roadless question clouds the status of the leases.

Attempts by The Daily Sentinel to get comment from officials with the Forest Service and S G Interests were unsuccessful.

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to delay the unitization decision to allow more time to reach a consensus on managing the Thompson Divide area. Several energy-industry trade groups and the Garfield County Commission objected and asked that the decision process be allowed to proceed.


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