Money a question mark for Thompson coalition

A coalition trying to stop oil and gas development on some 200,000 acres west of Carbondale is having to start a dialogue with a new congressman who last year defeated an incumbent who had agreed to take up their effort.

But the group’s election setback may pale in comparison to the challenge of financially compensating companies for existing leases covering more than 100,000 acres.

“I just don’t think that their ability to buy back leases is realistic,” said Robbie Guinn, vice president of land for Houston-based S G Interests Inc., the holder of a sizable amount of that lease acreage.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, a broad-based nonprofit group consisting of conservationists, ranchers, recreationists and others, has been working to prevent drilling on public lands in an area running from south of Glenwood Springs to Paonia Reservoir on the south side of McClure Pass. It hopes to stop future leasing and buy back existing leases.

It scored a political victory last year when U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., agreed to carry legislation on its behalf. But then Salazar was defeated by Republican Scott Tipton of Cortez.

“We’re basically waiting to see after we have a conversation with Representative Tipton how and where he would like to go and how we might like to address the issue,” said Dorothea Farris, vice president of the coalition board.

Tipton indicated a willingness to bring an open mind and consider all sides regarding ongoing wilderness and other land-conservation efforts in his 3rd Congressional District. At the same time, Tipton spokesman Josh Green noted the potential costs associated with the Thompson Divide effort might present a problem for a congressman who has made a priority of dealing with the federal budget.

“We need to seriously look at spending. We’re on a tight budget right now,” Green said.

The coalition is pushing to protect the area’s watersheds, air quality, wildlife habitat, agriculture and recreation.

Guinn said he gives the group credit for its interest in honoring existing leases “and the idea of purchasing something rather than just trying to take it away.” But he said his company’s drilling for natural gas in the area to date has been productive.

“Obviously if the price was right, we would (sell the leases), but how do we value these leases that we think have huge potential?” he said.

Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas (USA), said that while Encana has no plans to develop its leases in the area in question, it would oppose them being taken without compensation, but it would be willing to listen to purchase offers. He said the company also believes the area should be kept open to drilling, and stopping future leasing would be a bad precedent.


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