BLM pulls North Fork oil leases
The North Fork Valley has a reprieve from drilling after a turnabout by the Bureau of Land Management.
Drilling, however, still could come to the stretch of the Gunnison River, but it won’t be immediately, Helen Hankins, Colorado state director for the federal agency, said in a statement announcing the deferral.
“It’s safe to say the parcels are not going to be offered in the near future, certainly not this year,” state BLM spokesman Steven Hall said Wednesday.
A leasing decision, however, won’t be put off until a new resource-management plan for the lands administered by the bureau’s Uncompahgre Field Office is complete, Hall said.
Opponents of drilling in the Hotchkiss-Paonia regions had criticized leasing, saying that it shouldn’t occur before the agency completed plans aimed at governing management of the lands for the next two decades at least.
The lease deferral came as a surprise, said Gretchen Nicholoff, a North Fork-area resident and former head of the Western Colorado Congress.
“As of a couple days ago, we had been told exactly the opposite,” Nicholoff said. It was unclear why the agency changed course, Nicholoff said. “Maybe they were sick of all the emails and phone calls from us.”
Hankins noted that the deferral decision was made after hearing concerns “raised in numerous comments and in public meetings.”
The deferral seems to be setting a national precedent in which vocal local opposition can dictate the development of minerals owned by the federal government, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, pointing to a letter he sent Jan. 30 to the BLM.
If the bureau “withdraws the nominated leases based on patronage or on political favor, then the agency is reinforcing ‘not-in-my-backyard’ thinking,” Ludlam wrote.
The acting head of the BLM, Mike Pool, said the deferral was “consistent with our reform efforts that emphasize a comprehensive approach to oil and gas leasing so as to ensure that energy development occurs in the appropriate places.”
Nicholoff said she had hoped a leasing decision would be made after a new resource management plan was completed.
The Grand Junction Field Office is slightly ahead of its Uncompahgre counterpart in the drafting of a new resource management plan, and it is to be complete at the end of 2014.
By any interpretation, the decision is at best a reprieve, said Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, which worked to organize opposition to the leasing of 20,000 acres that otherwise would be on the auction block next week.
“I think it’s a testament to the community that has since December 2011 been asking the BLM to slow down and get its house in order,” Ramey said.
Paonia resident Pete Kolbenschlag said he worried the reprieve would prove short. “Will BLM-Colorado just bring it back in a few months?” Kolbenschlag said in an email. “Instead we hope that State Director Hankins implements a better leasing process, as per the reforms put forth by the Department of Interior, to ensure that proper landscape-level planning and management are in place BEFORE it prepares oil and gas lease sales.”
Drilling opponents pointed to the burgeoning organic farming industry of the area.