On the Thompson Divide
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Opponents of gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area rejoiced recently after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed recently to cancel 18 oil and gas leases in the hotly contested back-country region, and significantly reduce the size of seven others.
But there remain 40 leases located within the original boundaries of the 225,000-acre region known as Thompson Divide, that were left in place under existing lease rules and stipulations, as well as the seven leases that were reduced in size, all of which still are open to exploration and mineral extraction.
And as part of its recent proposal, the BLM has predicted that under its proposed Alternative 4, which cancels some leases and shrinks others, those leases essentially left whole and developable could represent several hundred wells drilled over a total land mass of more than 50,000 acres.
“We’re still going through the details, but our initial take is that if adopted, BLM’s proposal will protect tens of thousands of acres in the Thompson Divide from development, and ensure that pristine roadless lands aren’t bulldozed for new oil and gas development,” wrote attorney Peter Hart, a conservation activist who works with the Carbondale-based non-profit group, Wilderness Workshop.
The BLM issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on Nov. 18, detailing the agency’s analysis of 65 oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area, and the conclusion that 25 of those leases should be either canceled or modified.
The analysis was required following a court challenge roughly a decade ago to the issuance of the 65 leases over the past decade or so, which critics argued were illegal because insufficient environmental analysis had been done by the agency.
The BLM, in its initial decision-making process about the leases that started more than 10 years ago, had based its analysis on an EIS conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in 1993. The BLM’s Interior Board of Land Appeals agreed with critics of the leases, including Wilderness Workshop and other advocacy groups, that a more up-to-date analysis was needed, and ordered the BLM to start over with its own study.
The resulting DEIS, which is open for public comment until Jan. 8, offered five different alternative proposals, starting with Alternative 1, a “no action” plan that would have left all existing leases intact and unchanged, and ending with Alternative 5, which would have proposed that all 65 of the existing leases be canceled outright.
The “preferred alternative,” known as Alternative 4, calls for outright cancelation of 18 leases covering 28,400 acres, reduction in size of seven leases by about 4,500 acres, and only technical “stipulation” changes for the remaining 40 leases.
The BLM decision is in keeping with a 2014 Forest Plan issued by White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, which temporarily withdrew roughly 61,000 acres of the Thompson Divide area from further leasing considerations for the next 15 to 20 years. The BLM and the WRNF together oversee oil and gas leasing decisions affecting the White River district.
The leases that would be canceled or shrunk under the BLM’s draft EIS generally are located south of Sunlight Peak, west of Dry Park, Jerome Park and Assignation Ridge, and north of Coal Basin, and east of areas adjacent to Middle Thompson Park and Bald Mountain.
The seven leases to be reduced in size, according to the DEIS document, would either be offered at the new size to the companies holding the leases, or the companies could agree to allow the entire leases to be cancelled.
In the cases of lease cancelation, the BLM would refund lease payments and “bonus bids” paid by the companies when the leases originally were issued.
What’s possible elsewhere
The remaining 40 leases left largely unaltered under Alternative 4 in the DEIS, amounting to approximately 52,000 acres, are to be found in the section of the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office district that stretches westward from the leases recommended for closure or modification.
All of the 40 leases are south of the Colorado River, except for one in Rio Blanco County near Meeker, and the area where the 39 other leases are located begins south of New Castle and continues westward for about 40 miles, nearly all the way to the town of DeBeque — areas that already are host to numerous wells.
According to charts drawn up by the BLM, the closure of the 18 leases under Alternative 4 would withdraw from future development approximately 18 potential “vertical” or “directional” wells and perhaps one “horizontal” well, which could be drilled from perhaps three well pads.
That would leave the industry with the potential to drill perhaps 365 wells, which could descend from up to 55 drilling pads, including some level of development on the seven leases proposed for reduction in size but still open to drilling.
According to David Boyd, information officer for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, it is important for the public to understand that Alternative 4, if it is finally adopted, does not mean all those wells will be ready for drillers to go to work.
“We’re not approving or authorizing these at all,” Boyd said of the wells covered by Alternative 4, and the amount of development represented by the leases. “This is what we would anticipate for our analysis. This is the most development, under this alternative, that we think is reasonable.”
Peter Hart, speaking for the Wilderness Workshop, noted that there would be some restrictions on development of the remaining 40 leases, such as “no surface occupancy” rules for leases in areas that historically have been essentially roadless.
But, he conceded, the industry still can drill into the underground gas reserves below those leases using horizontal drilling technology.
Hart said the WW, along with others advocating elimination of drilling in the 225,000-acre Thompson Divide, will continue to push for the permanent cancelation of all 65 leases addressed in the DEIS, based on the assessment that the leases were issued illegally in the first place.
“The best thing for the BLM to do would be to just cancel all these leases and start all over again,” Hart said, adding that the WW will be reaching out to its membership to write letters to that effect.
“This is certainly critical for the Thompson Divide, and also for roadless areas in the White River National Forest,” he remarked.
In its approach to a letters campaign, Hart said, “I think we’ll tell them (the BLM) they should take it one step further and clean the slate,” getting rid of the contested leases and moving on to other issues.
Published in The Sopris Sun on November 26, 2015.