Thompson lease swap wins tentative support

During a 2012 visit Jock Jacober, a board member with the Thompson Divide Coalition, surveys the landscape where a SourceGas pipeline traverses the Wolf Creek area of Thompson Divide outside Glenwood Springs. SourceGas stores gas underground in previously drilled formations there,  but SG Interests holds right to drill in the deeper Mancos shale formation in Wolf Creek. It would give up these and its other lease rights in the Thompson Divide under a lease swap proposal.



Advocates for protecting the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development voiced tentative support Monday for a proposed lease swap that would help accomplish that.

The proposal also elicited some immediate tentative concern because it could result in more leased acreage in the North Fork Valley, where some area residents are opposed to drilling.

SG Interests and Ursa Resources hope to trade federal leases in the Thompson Divide area, southwest of Glenwood Springs, for proposed federal leases elsewhere in northwest Colorado.

The companies went before Garfield County commissioners Monday to seek their support for the federal legislation that would make the exchanges possible.

“This is obviously a first step in what promises to be a lengthy process,” Eric Sanford of SG Interests told the commissioners.

He said SG has been consulting with the staffs of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., about the proposal.

Governments, ranchers, recreationists and others in the Roaring Fork Valley have been trying to protect more than 200,000 acres of Thompson Divide acreage from being developed, but about 100,000 acres already are leased for drilling. Much of the immediate attention has focused on SG’s efforts to develop its acreage there.

Under its proposal, it would trade its roughly 30,000 acres of leases there for about 30,000 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. The largely contiguous acreage SG is seeking is roughly west and north of, but not immediately adjacent to, its leases in the Bull Mountain area southwest of McClure Pass. Sanford said while SG initially is proposing an acre-for-acre swap, it’s his understanding the Bureau of Land Management would have to evaluate the oil and gas development value of the lands involved to determine what’s actually a fair exchange.

Meanwhile, Ursa is proposing trading some 12,000 acres of leases in Thompson Divide for proposed leases covering a similar amount of acreage in Rio Blanco County. Ursa is targeting acreage southeast of Rangely and east of Colorado Highway 139.

Rio Blanco commissioners have approved a letter supporting the swap legislation, but only if it doesn’t include language preventing future leasing of the affected Thompson Divide lands.

Sanford said to keep things simple, the legislation SG is seeking wouldn’t permanently withdraw SG’s Thompson Divide acreage from leasing. However, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has proposed a new oil and gas plan for the forest that would close Thompson Divide acreage to future leasing over the life of that plan. Also, Bennet has been pushing separate legislation to withdraw Thompson Divide acreage from leasing, including acreage that’s already under lease in cases when leaseholders voluntarily relinquish those leases.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been seeking to protect that area from drilling, called the exchange proposal an important first step.

“We’re hopeful that both the coalition and the counties both on the giving and receiving end will have a seat at the table and the ability to provide input as the legislation takes shape and the negotiations continue,” he said.

Peter Hart, staff attorney with the Wilderness Workshop environmental group, said his organization supports the proposal “in concept as a potential solution to concerns that we’ve had.”

He said the Wilderness Workshop wants to make sure the proposed solution “really is a solution to all of these problems” and doesn’t create new ones.

One immediate concern the SG proposal raises is the prospect of more North Fork Valley drilling. The Paonia Chamber of Commerce is concerned about possible air and water impacts of large-scale development like SG’s proposed 146-well Bull Mountain drilling project, as well as possible harm to the region’s agritourism-oriented economy.

Paonia Chamber President Mike Drake told Garfield commissioners the chamber wants to make sure the proposed swap “is solving many important problems and not creating new ones.” He said the chamber has yet to see the details of the proposal, including what acreage SG is seeking to obtain, and would like to have the opportunity to comment before legislation goes forward. He urged Garfield commissioners to consider what the proposal could mean “for all your neighbors and us on the other side of McClure Pass.”

In an interview, Sanford said the BLM has told him that the acreage SG is seeking has been nominated by someone else to be offered at a lease sale, so if SG doesn’t end up with it, another company might.

The land SG is targeting has been designated by the Forest Service as available for potential leasing. Roughly two-thirds of it is in Delta County and one-third is in Mesa County, with the exception of about 600 acres that are in Gunnison County.

Garfield commissioners hope next week to approve a letter of support that includes the caveat that communities on the receiving end of the lease swap are OK with it.

“I’m optimistic about this, and the fact that there is communication back and forth, and hopefully in the future a solution that will make all parties happy,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.

Garfield County has supported efforts to protect Thompson Divide from oil and gas development if it can be done in a way that respects existing leaseholders.

Jim Ramey, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Delta County group with more than 375 members dedicated to protecting that area from irresponsible oil and gas development, said in a news release Monday, “We plan to analyze the details of (the proposed SG swap) carefully to make sure that it’s bringing enduring, meaningful protections and not creating new problems.

“Communities on both sides of McClure Pass cherish our public lands. We share the same values, recreation areas, and water supplies. Wildlife rely on the range of habitats that span the public lands in the North Fork and the Thompson Divide. Folks in the North Fork Valley stand together with our neighbors in the Crystal River and Roaring Fork valleys. We look forward to reviewing the proposal, and continuing to work for the protection that all these important public lands deserve.”

Sanford said there might not be complete agreement at this point on the lease exchange, “but the proposal needs to start somewhere.”

He added that SG’s preference would be to develop the leases it already has. He said the company looked all over Colorado trying to find acreage it could propose for a swap, and it was hard to find contiguous acreage of a large enough size that’s available for leasing.

Ursa’s Thompson Divide leases and some of SG’s are currently in limbo because of an ongoing, retroactive BLM environmental review of those and dozens of other leases on the White River National Forest. One possibility of that review is that leases could be canceled, although such an action might bring a legal challenge from leaseholders.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told Garfield commissioners, “The ideal situation would be for our producers to develop their existing, valid lease rights.”

But if the proposed swaps offer the opportunity to allow for development in a more expedient way, that makes sense and his organization will offer its support, he said.


COMMENTS

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This is hilarious! A battle between which enviro groups have the strongest (or richest ) nimby nuts behind them! My bet is on that Zane dude. being from aspen his lobbying is probably financed a little better than the other group. Got love the hypocrit versus hypocrit action.  Grab your popcorn and watch the enviros sell each other down the river!

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