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Lawyer lauds town over Thompson Divide issues

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

Carbondale’s elected leaders were encouraged to keep up the pressure against oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide area during a phone-in discussion with the town’s contract attorney in oil and gas issues, Mike Chiropolos of Denver.

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“That’s the way this battle is being won,” Chiropolos said at a meeting of the board of trustees on June 9, after he praised the town and its citizens for their activism on behalf of Thompson Divide.

The fact that Carbondale is being listened to in the Thompson Divide matter, Chiropolos declared, “really speaks to the resiliency and combativeness” of the local effort.

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Carbondale, in conjunction with other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley, Garfield County and Pitkin County, and local nonprofit organizations, has been fighting for several years to keep gas drilling rigs out of the Thompson Divide area, based on a range of issues that include the town’s dependence on a recreation-based economy that is largely linked to the Thompson Divide area, as well as concerns about impacts from gas development.

The Thompson Divide is a 220,000-acre swath of wild lands southwest of Carbondale, stretching basically from Sunlight Mountain to McClure Pass and beyond, that has been targeted for natural gas development and the controversial gas-extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

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But Carbondale, along with its allies, has been engaged in a multi-front campaign that combines public pressure on elected officials at all levels, with behind-the-scenes work by attorneys and others to monitor the energy industry and state regulators to head off pro-drilling bureaucratic efforts.

And that effort has been having an effect.

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White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams decided in late 2014 to remove 61,000 acres of land in Thompson Divide, viewed by the industry as having high potential for oil and gas development, from the inventory of land eligible for gas leasing.

Elsewhere in the forest, Fitzwilliams determined that no surface disturbance can occur on roadless lands that remain open to leasing.

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Fitzwilliams’ decisions were set in stone in March, after the WRFN rejected industry objections.

Earlier this year, a deal surfaced that would entail a land swap by two energy companies — Ursa Resources of Denver and SG Interests of Texas — who would trade leased lands they hold in Thompson Divide for new leases in national forests in Delta, Mesa and Gunnison counties.

In the meantime, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is conducting a National Environmental Policy Act review of 25 Thompson Divide leases originally issued in the 1990s but without the required NEPA review. The need to do the review retroactively was a result of work done by organizations such as the Wilderness Workshop, the Thompson Divide Coalition, and the collection of towns and counties working to prevent drilling in the Divide, including Carbondale.

And just this week, the town and other local governments sent letters to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which traditionally acts favorably toward industry interests, objecting to a COGCC decision to give at least “paper approval” to two SG Interests applications for permission to drill in the Divide.

The town and other agencies maintain the permits to drill should not have been issued prior to a decision by the BLM on the NEPA review of the 25 leases.

In his telephone presentation to the Carbondale trustees on June 9, Chiropolos stressed that there is a lot of work remaining, since the WRNF decision will only protect the Divide for the next 15-20 years, and the proposed lease swap, which has yet to be fully ratified by everyone involved, would not close out the Thompson Divide leased lands from future leasing.

He noted that Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Mike Bennet continues to work on legislation that would permanently remove Thompson Divide from the leasing inventory, but emphasized that in the current Congress passage will prove difficult.

Still, Chiropolos told the trustees, “I think our chances are good at getting an administrative solution” that would provide breathing room for other negotiations over the next two decades.

Concerning the June 8 letter to the COGCC and the ongoing objections to the issuance of drilling permits, Chiropolos said, “It showed them we’re watching, and it … might have some effect in discouraging SC Interests from seeking further approvals” until after the BLM makes its ruling on the NEPA review.

“This has been an uphill battle, but one that has been worthwhile,” intoned Mayor Stacey Bernot, who has traveled to Denver for hearings before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“I feel like what we have done together on this issue is extraordinary,” added Trustee Katrina Byars, who is the official Local Government Designee from Carbondale under the COGCC’s rules governing local government’s abilities to intervene in the agency’s actions, and the local signer on the June 8 letter.

She continued that it has been unusual, and effective, “for such a small community to give such clear and consistent feedback” in an effort to preserve public lands from unwanted energy development.

Published in The Sopris Sun on June 18, 2015. 

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