BLM shouldn’t cancel controversial gas leases

It’s the tree-huggers vs. the roughnecks. The haves against the have-nots. The NIMBYs against the “drill baby” drillers.

Yes, that’s a crass oversimplification of the opposing forces in a battle sparked by gas leases in Thompson Divide. But it would be silly to ignore the divisions that have emerged along class lines.

The fight itself — a predictable turf war between affluent resort communities and working-class towns and cities reliant on gas production for jobs — isn’t as difficult to understand as the nettlesome manner in which it arose.

Back in 1993, the U.S. Forest Service completed an environmental analysis and identified parcels in the White River National Forest suitable for gas exploration. The BLM, which manages mineral rights on Forest Service land, issued gas leases, many of which are currently in production, in an area stretching from De Beque to Redstone.

But Pitkin County discovered that the BLM had failed to formally adopt the Forest Service’s environmental analysis and sued to overturn leases in the Thompson Divide area.

The BLM acknowledged the adminstrative oversight and undertook a new review of all gas leases authorized under the Forest Service’s management plan, including ones outside the Thompson Divide area. In total, 65 oil and gas leases are under review. They will be either canceled, modified or left untouched.

As part of its scoping process, the BLM conducted hearings in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Aspen, where the majority of those in attendance voiced opposition to the leases. The BLM on Thursday held a scoping meeting in De Beque which provided some balance to the debate. This is where pro-energy forces rallied in support of keeping the leases and voiced concerns about Aspen-area elites exerting undue influence to politicize what should be a simple analytical process.

Colorado’s U.S. senators, both Demorcats, have urged for the Thompson Divide area to be protected from drilling. Environmental groups tend to support Democratic candidates.

But there are serious issues at stake. Canceling the leases would most certainly lead to lawsuits from the gas companies that have invested considerable sums of money in acquiring the leases and planning for production. In the cases of those companies that are already generating royalties, the stakes are even higher. The government would face the prospect of compensating companies for their losses — to say nothing of the workers employed by those companies. Job losses would sting the economy.

The Thompson Divide Coalition says existing uses of the land — hunting, fishing, ranching, and recreation — support nearly 300 jobs and $30 million in annual economic output for nearby communities.

We’re not unsympathetic to their position. But there are plenty of examples of gas development co-existing with other land uses, even in resort areas. And it seems unfair that oil and gas companies went through the proper steps to acquire leases, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them on a technicality. The time to oppose the leases was in the early 1990s. Not now.


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