Preparing for a fight

Conservationists and environmental advocates are hailing a pair of Bureau of Land Management decisions regarding drilling in western Colorado as a pair of wins.

That’s true in the case of the Roan Plateau. On Thursday in Denver, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a final BLM decision that cements a settlement agreement reached in 2014. It restricts drilling on top of the ecologically rich plateau, but allows energy development nearby.

But that settlement was reached after a decade of negotiations and legal battles and required the federal government to reimburse Bill Barrett Corp. $47.6 million for canceling 17 leases.

The outcome should serve as a model for how the BLM “can look at resource values on a landscape scale to determine where development should — and shouldn’t — take place,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.

But it also serves as a crystal ball for how things are likely to go in the Thompson Divide, an area of the White River National Forest affected by the BLM’s other decision announced Thursday. The BLM manages mineral resources beneath national forests.

As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported, Interior has decided to cancel 25 oil and gas leases on about 33,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs — a move that surprised no one. The BLM had proposed canceling the leases in a final environmental impact statement earlier this year.

David Ludlam, the executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, requested that Interior officials forego “celebration and pomp and circumstance” in announcing the decision in deference to Western Slope communities that are negatively affected by it.

Ludlam has a point. Should the Interior Department be spiking the football in the endzone on a play that is certain to come under replay review? The industry, including SG Interests, which holds 18 of the 25 Thompson Divide leases, is expected to sue, which could touch off a protracted compromise, similar to what occurred over the Roan controversy.

The dialogue among Roan stakeholders largely occurred during the Obama administration. The incoming Trump administration may be more willing to side with industry if there’s an administrative appeal, and environmentalists are girding for a fight.

“These decisions are also a portent for the Trump administration, whose leaders have already indicated their willingness to unravel public lands protections and prioritize oil and gas development over other uses of our lands,” Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado said in a statement. “Even if it takes more than a decade, as occurred with the Roan Plateau decision, we will stand our ground and fight for what’s right when it comes to our lands, water, and wildlife.”

Since the final BLM proposal doesn’t provide new protections for leases west of the Thompson Divide, conservation groups may file suit themselves.

Things may be settled on the Roan, but the fight may just be getting started in the Thompson Divide.


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