Local power gets results for Thompson Divide

New legislation could end a decade-long fight against oil and gas development.

 

The Thompson Divide, roughly 220,0000 mountainous acres southwest of Carbondale, Colorado, is so rugged that when area ranchers lose their cattle, they often can only find them by air, flying low in a small plane or helicopter. That’s also the best way to see just how wild the Divide is, as I did recently with Ecoflight, a nonprofit that takes concerned citizens, conservation groups, policy makers, and journalists on flights over threatened landscapes to advocate for their protection. This densely forested piece of the White River National Forest is so undeveloped that it takes a practiced eye to tell where the Divide ends and the neighboring wilderness areas to the east—the high peaks of the Raggeds and the Maroon Bells—begin.

Today, the Thompson Divide still resembles what Theodore Roosevelt described after hunting there in 1905: “a great, wild country… where the mountains crowded together in chain, peak, and tableland.” But for the past decade, with companies seeking to develop oil and gas resources in the area, the surrounding community has had to fight to keep it that way. Now, a new bill introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., seeks to protect this landscape permanently.

The rugged, remote nature of the Thompson Divide has helped protect it from oil and gas development thus far.

When the Bureau of Land Management, which manages mineral rights on Forest Service land, issued more than 80 oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide in the early 2000s, most residents of Carbondale and other surrounding communities had little idea it was happening. In 2009, the BLM deemed invalid—and consequently revoked—several leases after a review by the Interior Board of Land Appeals revealed that they had never undergone proper environmental assessment. This prompted investigation of the remaining leases, and as a result, the BLM canceled 25 more leases last November, offering reimbursement to the leaseholders.

Sen. Bennet’s bill, the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act of 2017, would permanently withdraw 173,000 acres of the Divide from future leasing and provide compensation for the canceled leases (18 owned by SG Interests and seven by Ursa Resources) above and beyond what the BLM offered. The bill also stipulates that, in order to receive reimbursement for those leases, SG Interests would have to relinquish its subleases in another area of the Divide.

Groups like the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the Thompson Divide Coalition, and other concerned citizens have been fighting oil and gas development for nearly a decade. Because the Divide supports such a broad range of uses, including ranching, hunting and angling, and recreation, nearly everyone in the area depends on it in some way, and “United for Thompson Divide” signs dot the roadsides around Carbondale. The Divide’s mid-elevation habitat supports bear, deer, elk, moose, and lynx, and provides a vital link with open lands on nearby Grand Mesa and Battlement Mesa.

Oil and gas development has already fragmented much of the massive Piceance Basin to the northwest of Thompson Divide, offering a clear cautionary tale. The remote nature of the Divide has so far helped protect it from that fate. So have market forces, which led some leaseholders to give up because it wasn’t profitable to develop in the area, according to Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition.

OIl and gas development has fragmented the Piceance Basin northwest of Thompson Divide.

But the coalition also worked proactively. “We took a fact-based, business-minded approach from day one,” Kessler says. The coalition had appraisals done, including an economic analysis that found that the financial benefits of existing surface uses could very well outweigh those of mineral development: Hunting, grazing, fishing, and recreation in the Divide support close to 300 jobs and bring in $30 million annually. And a geologic and economic analysis found “little to no economic viability for the drilling of oil or gas wells” due to high infrastructure costs and low potential of finding significant reserves. Leaseholders, the study estimated, would need to drill a minimum of 40 high-performing wells with a 100 percent success rate just to cover costs.

Collaboration among “strange bedfellows”— not only ranchers and various recreation groups but also the Garfield, Pitkin, and Gunnison county commissions—has also been key to getting the land protected, according to Kessler. Even Gunnison Energy came to the table. Bennet’s bill excludes an area where Gunnison Energy drilled previously and hopes to pursue further development, a concession that helped win the company’s ongoing support for permanent protection in the rest of the Divide.

SG Interests, on the other hand, has sued Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management officials over its lost leases, saying the cancellations were unlawful and unnecessary. But the reimbursement is more than fair, argues Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, given that leaseholders are getting paid for undeveloped leases that were issued illegally in the first place.

An earlier Thompson Divide bill, drafted last year by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., failed to gain traction in part because local citizens objected to provisions allowing SG Interests to exchange its Thompson Divide leases for others in Delta, Mesa and Gunnison counties and Ursa to exchange its leases for others in Rio Blanco County. By contrast, Bennet’s bill includes no such swap, and explicitly states that any new leases will have to go through the full environmental review process. That ensures this bill won’t “take one community’s problem and put it in the watershed of another,” notes Hart. Bennet’s is a “more thoughtful bill,” Hart says, and if it passes, it will finally resolve “a contentious oil and gas issue that’s been boiling for a long, long time.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News.