Industry blasts feds’ Thompson lease closures

Energy groups rip drilling decision; market is driving force, others say

Closing off Thompson Divide to new oil and gas development falls short of federal environmental requirements, energy industry organizations said Tuesday.

The organizations filed a formal objection to the proposed plan for the White River National Forest that calls on the Forest Service to withdraw its plan altogether and undertake comprehensive analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We don’t believe (the Forest Service) took a close enough look at the resource base,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

The market, however, already has spoken, said a member of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has sought to prevent drilling on existing leases as well as prevent new ones on the divide.

In the last three years, several energy companies have stopped drilling in the Piceance Basin because it wasn’t profitable, said Jock Jocober, a rancher and member of the coalition.

“How can a brand new federal decision that protects local communities ‘strangle’ a shale play, when industry’s leading lights decided years ago it just doesn’t pay to drill it?” Jocober said.

That resource base includes the Mancos shale, also known on the east side of the state as the Niobrara shale, which is yielding oil and natural gas.

“Taking away public access to these significant shale gas resources is a decision that must not be taken lightly and its impacts to local governments must be fully disclosed,” Ludlam said. “We believe this objection is the first step in making sure the multiple-use mission of the Forest Service isn’t forgotten.”

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in December that the decision left about 70 percent of the lands in the forest with high potential for oil and gas development still available for leasing.

In practice, however, the ruling cripples any chance of drilling, said Claire Mosely, executive director of Public Lands Advocacy, which supports energy development on public lands.

In failing to analyze the actual oil and natural gas potential in the forest, the Forest Service “blithely” banned leasing on almost 1.3 million acres and placed the most severe restriction — one of no-surface occupancy — on most of the little that remains available for leasing, the energy organizations said.

The decision comes against the backdrop of a study by the Bureau of Land Management about whether to void some or all of 65 existing leases on Thompson Divide, including several in Mesa County.

It’s possible that the BLM, which oversees drilling on the forest, could cite a restrictive forest plan should it void the existing leases, Ludlam said.

That’s exactly what ought to happen, said Zane Kessler, executive director of the coalition.

The Forest Service’s decision announced in December “is a clear indication that public support for protecting Thompson Divide can and should carry significant weight under NEPA,” Kessler said. “We hope BLM will attach equal significance to the public’s concerns.”

Formal objections, such as those filed by the industry groups, are reviewed by the regional forester and the process includes a chance for objectors to present their case to the Forest Service, which has 90 days to finalize the objection process.

“I am not surprised we received objections” to the draft decision, Fitzwilliams said. “These are hard decisions and at times it is difficult to find common ground. I look forward to working through the objection process in a transparent manner.”


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