Bennet offers Thompson Divide bill

Citing what he calls “overwhelming support” for it, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet today introduced a bill seeking to limit oil and gas development in the 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs.

“This bill to manage the pristine Thompson Divide area reflects the voices of stakeholders and Coloradans in the surrounding communities who live, work, and recreate in the area and rely on it for their livelihoods,” Bennet, D-Colo., said in a news release.

The bill applies to about 183,000 federal acres of the Thompson Divide area, which stretches south to McClure Pass and lies west of Carbondale. A broad-based group called the Thompson Divide Coalition wants to protect the area from drilling. More than 100,000 acres already have oil and gas leases on them, however.

The coalition is concerned about potential impacts to hunting and fishing, grazing and recreation activities and this week released a study indicating these generate nearly $30 million in direct and indirect annual economic benefits and support nearly 300 jobs.

Bennet’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, released in draft form for public comment in August, offers what he says is a middle-ground solution there. It would withdraw unleased public minerals from future oil and gas development while preserving existing lease rights. It also lets existing leases be retired if they are willingly donated or sold by their owners.

The concept is modeled after a similar federal law sponsored by Wyoming Republicans that withdrew 1.2 million acres in and around the Wyoming Range from future leasing while honoring existing leases. Bennet’s measure has received support from Pitkin, Gunnison and Garfield counties, and several area municipalities.

Bennet’s office said it received nearly 700 comments from local residents on the draft bill, and only 1 percent said oil and gas leasing and development in the Thompson Divide should continue, citing factors such as national energy independence and the public nature of the resources.

The rest supported the draft bill due to concerns such as traffic, watershed and agricultural impacts.

A half-dozen energy advocacy groups have opposed the bill. They say the area holds promising oil and gas resources, and the economic viability of developing existing leases can hinge on the ability to seek additional nearby leases.

The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop said today, “Senator Bennet’s withdrawal legislation is a significant step toward protecting the area’s existing values and we’re grateful that our unified voice about protecting this extraordinary this place is actually being heard in D.C. Thank you Senator Bennet for listening and acting. Future generations will be grateful.”


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