New TD proposal more sleight of hand than lease swap

 Thompson Divide Area is a political concept created by wilderness advocates

Thompson Divide  Wilderness Area

On Saturday, an article in the Post Independent announced a proposed swap of SG Interests’ and Ursa’s oil & gas leases in the Thompson Divide for leases on lands in Rio Blanco, Delta, Mesa, and Gunnison counties. A few details were offered up. For one thing the proposal would require federal legislation and congressional approval, which is probably the greatest stumbling block since Congress can’t agree on anything. And with a large portion of the new leases located in Gunnison County, on its surface it looked to me like selling out our friends and neighbors in Paonia.

The proposal was presented and discussed at Monday’s Garfield County BOCC meeting where more details emerged, including that the legislation would not include the permanent removal of the Thompson Divide for leasing consideration. In other words, the proposal is more of sleight of hand than “lease swap.” It’s just another instance of the industry shuffling the deck in its favor.

Thompson lease swap wins tentative support

Advocates for protecting the Thompson Divide area from oil and gas development voiced tentative support Monday for a proposed lease swap that would help accomplish that.

The proposal also elicited some immediate tentative concern because it could result in more leased acreage in the North Fork Valley, where some area residents are opposed to drilling.

SG Interests and Ursa Resources hope to trade federal leases in the Thompson Divide area, southwest of Glenwood Springs, for proposed federal leases elsewhere in northwest Colorado.

The companies went before Garfield County commissioners Monday to seek their support for the federal legislation that would make the exchanges possible.

“This is obviously a first step in what promises to be a lengthy process,” Eric Sanford of SG Interests told the commissioners.

He said SG has been consulting with the staffs of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., about the proposal …

… Under its proposal, it would trade its roughly 30,000 acres of leases there for about 30,000 acres in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest. The largely contiguous acreage SG is seeking is roughly west and north of, but not immediately adjacent to, its leases in the Bull Mountain area southwest of McClure Pass. Sanford said while SG initially is proposing an acre-for-acre swap, it’s his understanding the Bureau of Land Management would have to evaluate the oil and gas development value of the lands involved to determine what’s actually a fair exchange.

Meanwhile, Ursa is proposing trading some 12,000 acres of leases in Thompson Divide for proposed leases covering a similar amount of acreage in Rio Blanco County. Ursa is targeting acreage southeast of Rangely and east of Colorado Highway 139.

Rio Blanco commissioners have approved a letter supporting the swap legislation, but only if it doesn’t include language preventing future leasing of the affected Thompson Divide lands.

Sanford said to keep things simple, the legislation SG is seeking wouldn’t permanently withdraw SG’s Thompson Divide acreage from leasing. However, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has proposed a new oil and gas plan for the forest that would close Thompson Divide acreage to future leasing over the life of that plan. Also, Bennet has been pushing separate legislation to withdraw Thompson Divide acreage from leasing, including acreage that’s already under lease in cases when leaseholders voluntarily relinquish those leases.

Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been seeking to protect that area from drilling, called the exchange proposal an important first step.

“We’re hopeful that both the coalition and the counties both on the giving and receiving end will have a seat at the table and the ability to provide input as the legislation takes shape and the negotiations continue,” he said.

Peter Hart, staff attorney with the Wilderness Workshop environmental group, said his organization supports the proposal “in concept as a potential solution to concerns that we’ve had.”

He said the Wilderness Workshop wants to make sure the proposed solution “really is a solution to all of these problems” and doesn’t create new ones.

The new problems Hart refers to involve our friends and neighbors in Paonia. As reported in today’s PI:  “According to Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, about 65 percent of the new lease area is available but unleased lands in Delta County north of Paonia and west and north of its existing Bull Mountain Unit.”

Located in the North Fork Valley Paonia is famous for its organic gardens, orchards, and vineyards. The “lease swap” proposal would increase the inevitability of more drilling in this agriculturally-rich region, posing a threat to air and water quality.

One immediate concern the SG proposal raises is the prospect of more North Fork Valley drilling. The Paonia Chamber of Commerce is concerned about possible air and water impacts of large-scale development like SG’s proposed 146-well Bull Mountain drilling project, as well as possible harm to the region’s agritourism-oriented economy.

Paonia Chamber President Mike Drake told Garfield commissioners the chamber wants to make sure the proposed swap “is solving many important problems and not creating new ones.” He said the chamber has yet to see the details of the proposal, including what acreage SG is seeking to obtain, and would like to have the opportunity to comment before legislation goes forward. He urged Garfield commissioners to consider what the proposal could mean “for all your neighbors and us on the other side of McClure Pass.”

Jim Ramey, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a Delta County group with more than 375 members dedicated to protecting that area from irresponsible oil and gas development, said in a news release Monday, “We plan to analyze the details of (the proposed SG swap) carefully to make sure that it’s bringing enduring, meaningful protections and not creating new problems.

“Communities on both sides of McClure Pass cherish our public lands. We share the same values, recreation areas, and water supplies. Wildlife rely on the range of habitats that span the public lands in the North Fork and the Thompson Divide. Folks in the North Fork Valley stand together with our neighbors in the Crystal River and Roaring Fork valleys. We look forward to reviewing the proposal, and continuing to work for the protection that all these important public lands deserve” …

As for the GarCo commissioners, the Daily Sentinel reported:  “Garfield commissioners hope next week to approve a letter of support that includes the caveat that communities on the receiving end of the lease swap are OK with it.”

And the Post Independent reported:  “Garfield County commissioners gave tentative approval to a letter of support that is to be sent to members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation asking them to carry necessary legislation to move the proposed lease exchange forward. A final version of that letter is to be considered at the commissioners’ April 13 meeting.”

As they say, the devil is in the details.

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