Decisions on Roan, Thompson due today

Widespread belief is that feds intend to cancel oil leases

Top federal officials will join Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in Denver today to announce what the oil and gas industry expects, and conservationists and others hope, will be the cancellation of 25 leases in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Land Management national director Neil Kornze will join Hickenlooper in announcing the federal government’s final decision on the retroactive environmental review of 65 oil and gas leases in the White River National Forest, including the 25 Thompson Divide leases.

The BLM also is scheduled to release a final decision today on an amendment to a management plan for the Roan Plateau west of Rifle, after the agency previously canceled leases on the plateau top under a lawsuit settlement.

The BLM’s final environmental impact assessment on the 65-lease review, issued earlier this year, proposed canceling the Thompson Divide leases.

Should that happen, it will be cheered by the Thompson Divide Coalition and others who have advocated for protecting that area from oil and gas development.

“Communities in the Thompson Divide overwhelmingly supported conservation of those lands for existing uses that generate meaningful economic impact,” said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition.

The coalition consists of ranching, conservation, recreation and other interests.

Assuming the leases are canceled, David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, objects to the idea of federal officials leading Thompson Divide advocates in what he views as a gloating celebration of the decision.

“The fact of the matter is they have won a political victory at the expense of our constitutional property rights,” he said in an email to the BLM. “Communicating this in Denver, in the form of a dramatic press conference, is in poor taste. Especially considering the people on this side of the mountains, in Grand Junction, in Rifle, in Parachute, are negatively affected by this decision and don’t see reason for celebration and pomp and circumstance.”

Ludlam has asked the BLM to forward to Jewell his request that she reconsider holding the event.

Ludlam forwarded his email to several local elected officials and other community leaders, along with The Daily Sentinel. One recipient, Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, responded to Ludlam that she’s glad he made his request “and we feel the same way as you do on the matter.”

Asked about Ludlam’s request, BLM spokesman Steven Hall said only that the agency received it and appreciates his input.

The industry, including SG Interests, which holds 18 of the 25 Thompson Divide leases, expects to sue if the leases are canceled. Industry officials also hope the election of Donald Trump as president may open the door to possibilities such as a successful administrative appeal to the Trump administration. Trump has called for reducing obstacles to development of oil, gas and coal.

Meanwhile, the Thompson Divide is only part of the focus for some conservationists awaiting today’s announcement on the 65 leases.

“We’re certainly hopeful that the BLM will follow through on its plans to cancel the leasing inside the Thompson Divide. The big question for us is whether the agency is going to do the other half of the job and protect the leases west of the divide,” said Mike Freeman, an attorney with the group Earthjustice.

Earthjustice and others, including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, say other lands covered by the 65 leases, which stretch almost to De Beque, are just as worthy of protection as Thompson Divide. But the BLM’s most recent proposal would apply new protective stipulations only to 13 leases that energy companies haven’t yet begun developing. It backed away from an initial proposal to also impose them on 27 leases with producing wells, citing technical and legal obstacles to doing so.

If the final BLM proposal doesn’t satisfy the conservation groups, “we’re going to look at all our options,” said Freeman, who declined to say whether those options might include a lawsuit.

Freeman helped litigate the lawsuit leading to the settlement on the Roan Plateau. A federal judge in 2012 identified deficiencies in the BLM management plan there that led to the leasing of more than 50,000 acres on and below the plateau top.

Under a settlement that followed, Bill Barrett Corp. agreed to the cancellation of 17 leases covering almost 35,000 acres on the plateau top. The BLM also launched a process to amend its Roan plan, and agreed to consider an alternative consistent with the settlement terms, which include closing the nearly 35,000 acres to leasing for the life of the plan.

The agency identified that alternative as its preferred one in its final environmental impact statement released this summer.


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