BLM may cancel oil and gas leases in Colorado’s Thompson Divide

Fate of disputed leases could show ongoing shift in the Bureau of Land Management.

 

The Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale, Colorado, is a nearly quarter-million-acre swath of roadless and rugged topography, with vast stretches of aspen groves and dark timber forests. Hikers and anglers recreate there, while large elk and mule deer herds draw hunters. The area also has a long history of ranching – and it contains fertile ground for oil and gas leases. 

But in late November, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft environmental impact statement that could lead to canceling 25 of the most contentious leases.

Mt. Sopris seen from the Thompson Divide in western Colorado.
Peter Hart, Wilderness Worksop

All of the leases in the Thompson Divide were sold between 2003 and 2004, drawing protests from area conservationists who argued that they were issued in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, without sufficient review. In 2007, the Interior Board of Land Appeals agreed; this new environmental impact statement is meant to address deficiencies in the original analysis.

The federal government has already determined that most of the Thompson Divide area shouldn’t be leased. It’s located within the White River National Forest, the most visited forest in the nation, and last year, the U.S. Forest Service issued a plan closing much of it to future oil and gas leasing.

“We had the option to either adopt the USFS environmental impact statement or do our own,” says David Boyd, a BLM spokesman based in Silt, Colorado. The agency’s proposed action would fully cancel 18 undeveloped leases and partially cancel seven others in that same area. The remaining 40 leases would be modified to help protect wildlife, with stipulations such as prohibiting surface disturbance and drilling seasonally.

The BLM’s move to cancel the leases is one more indication that the agency is increasingly keen on scrutinizing oil and gas development. “We're always looking for a balanced approach,” Boyd says.

Conservation groups, such as the Thompson Divide Coalition, say the BLM does seem to be more willing to rein in energy development and protect wild areas and communities. “All of those years of hard work are beginning to pay off,” says Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition. “In the months to come, we will continue to encourage the BLM to stand up for our local economies and for the men and women who rely on these lands for their livelihoods.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that the BLM has canceled leases in western Colorado. Four leases near Sunlight Mountain Resort in the Thompson Divide were canceled in 2004 because they had been sold despite prohibitions on oil and gas development on property under permit by ski areas. Following the 2007 Interior Board of Land Appeals case, the BLM canceled three oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide. And, earlier this year, after years of lawsuits from environmental groups, the BLM canceled 17 of 19 leases on the Roan Plateau and refunded $47 million to lease holders.

The BLM has kept oil and gas development out of some other sensitive areas in other Western states as well. In 2010, the agency introduced leasing reform and a new tool to manage lands, “master leasing plans,” meant to better plan for oil and gas development while preserving natural resource and recreation values. In August, the BLM released a draft master leasing plan for nearly 800,000 federal acres near Utah’s Canyonlands National Park that would significantly curtail future development near all parks, trails and sensitive sites. The agency took a similar stance on the nearby Dinosaur Trail master leasing plan, where it increased protections for future leasing while cutting back on the acreage allotted for drilling.

If the agency eventually approves the proposed action for Thompson Divide, it would refund the money that energy companies spent to buy the canceled leases and the annual rental fee they’ve been paying. Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa Resources, which owns some of the leases, says that canceling them would be no different than revoking property rights. And reimbursement, Simpson says, wouldn’t be fair because the leases are more valuable now than when his company purchased them. The company is hedging its bets – it’s proposed a lease swap that would move existing leases from the Thompson Divide to four neighboring counties in western Colorado. “We’re hoping that can still work out,” Simpson says, although the proposal has created controversy among environmental groups opposed to simply shifting the leases elsewhere.

The BLM’s draft plan for the Thompson Divide region includes four other alternatives in addition to the proposed action. Those range from upholding all 65 leases in the White River National Forest without modifications, to canceling all of them. Any of those options could become the preferred alternative when the final EIS is issued in the summer of 2016, Boyd says. The draft report is in a public comment period through January 8.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern for High Country News.