Sen. Bennet tries to limit oil, gas drilling in Thompson Divide area

Citing what he calls “overwhelming support” for it, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill Friday seeking to limit oil and gas development in the 221,000-acre Thompson Divide area south of Glenwood Springs.

“This bill to manage the pristine Thompson Divide area reflects the voices of stakeholders and Coloradans in the surrounding communities who live, work and recreate in the area and rely on it for their livelihoods,” Bennet, D-Colo., said.

The bill applies to about 183,000 federal acres of the area, stretching south to McClure Pass and west of Carbondale.

A group called the Thompson Divide Coalition wants to protect the area from drilling. More than 100,000 acres already have oil and gas leases on them, however. The coalition is concerned about potential impacts to hunting and fishing, grazing and recreation activities and this week released a study indicating these generate nearly 
$30 million in direct and indirect annual economic benefits and support nearly 300 jobs.

Bennet’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, released in draft form for public comment in August, offers what he says is a middle-ground solution there.

It would withdraw unleased public minerals from future oil and gas development while preserving existing lease rights. It also lets existing leases be retired if they are willingly donated or sold by their owners.

The concept is modeled after a similar federal law sponsored by Wyoming Republicans that withdrew 1.2 million acres in and around the Wyoming Range from future leasing while honoring existing leases. Bennet’s measure has received support from Pitkin, Gunnison and Garfield counties and several towns.

Bennet’s office said it received nearly 700 comments from local residents on the draft bill, and only 1 percent said oil and gas leasing and development should continue, citing factors such as national energy independence and the public nature of the resources.

The rest supported the bill because of traffic, watershed and agricultural concerns.

Energy advocacy groups oppose the bill. They say the area holds promising resources, and the economic viability can hinge on the ability to seek additional nearby leases.

But the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop said Friday, “Thank you Senator Bennet for listening and acting. Future generations will be grateful.”

Randy Melton, owner of Avalanche Outfitters, said in a release from the coalition, “This isn’t your typical enviro effort. We’re cowboys and outfitters, and we depend on this land for our livelihood. It’s good to see that someone in D.C. understands this.”


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