Bennet sees precedence for possible solution to Thompson Divide controversy

When U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet put forth a possible solution to the dispute over the prospect of drilling in the Thompson Divide area, he was able to follow the example of Colorado’s neighbor to the north.

Draft legislation that Bennet, D-Colo., offered in early August for public comment would prevent future federal oil and gas leasing in 183,000 acres of the 221,500-acre the Thompson Divide area. It also would permanently withdraw currently leased areas from further leasing in cases when leaseholders voluntarily relinquish a lease via donation, purchase, exchange or other means.

“This bill was modeled after one in Wyoming, started by Sen. Craig Thomas there,” Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said. “While the outcome in Colorado would ultimately be up to the stakeholders, a prime example of this type of process is right up the road.

“In 2009, the Wyoming Range Legacy Act was signed into law under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. The Legacy Act, begun by the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas and carried forward by his replacement Sen. John Barrasso, withdrew 1.2 million acres of public land in and around the Wyoming Range from future gas and oil leases, while honoring existing leases.”

Bennet’s measure concerns Thompson Divide acreage in Garfield County but not in Mesa or Delta counties “because they did not endorse a stakeholder-based legislative process or write Senator Bennet requesting such a process,” Bozzi said.

He said Bennet “likes to have a community-driven process where he convenes members of the community, and likes input from all sides, so that’s kind of where this came from.”

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, said all three directly affected counties — Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — have voiced support for the legislation, as have all the communities in the Roaring Fork Valley, which runs from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

Said Bozzi, “Generally we’re hearing a lot of positive comments.”

A notable exception has been the reaction of oil and gas industry groups. Shortly after the measure’s unveiling, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Western Energy Alliance, Colorado Petroleum Association, Colorado Oil & Gas Association, Public Lands Advocacy and the La Plata County Energy Council sent a joint letter raising numerous concerns.

“The permanent nature of the draft legislation is philosophically and practically troubling to our organizations. First, the nation should preserve its energy (and thereby economic) flexibility in the face of an uncertain future — where an ever increasing energy need is one of the few certainties we do have,” the letter said.

The letter cites the importance of energy companies being able to know that if they invest in success exploratory leases, “adjacent parcels might then be explored to provide opportunity for scalable, cost effective development.” It says Bennet’s measure will hurt leaseholders and mineral interest owners “and will hold hostage federal revenues in a time of historic congressional spending and deficits.”

Said Bozzi, “We’re looking for a middle ground. There are some on one side that will tell you no land anywhere should ever be prevented from being drilled on. We also have to look at the economic impact here, and this land is really important to local economies.”

He cited agricultural, recreation, tourism and other industries that advocates for protecting the Thompson Divide area say are threatened by drilling.

Sad Leo McKinney, a Glenwood Springs City Council member who supports Bennet’s bill, “To me we should be protecting not only the land but the larger economy.”

He added, “There are areas where mineral extraction has taken over and has really decimated what was there before — like the Piceance Basin.”

Mike Gamba cast the lone vote on Glenwood’s council against supporting the Bennet measure. He noted that everyone likes electric cars but fails to recognize the electricity comes from sources including natural gas. Glenwood likewise has gotten behind efforts to increase use of compressed natural gas vehicles, he said.

“So we want all this natural gas. We want it for electric cars and we want to run it in our vehicles but we’re not willing to have it (drilled for) in our backyards.

“… I think it’s shortsighted and hypocritical to say, well, my backyard is too pretty for it, you can’t get it in my backyard.”

McKinney believes Bennet’s measure strikes the middle ground the senator seeks by not mandating that existing Thompson Divide lease holders give up their leases.

“That’s something that should appeal to the perspective of keeping government out of everything,” he said.


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