WW provides defense while the Coalition seeks permanent protection
The 220,000-acre Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale, lies in the path of oil and gas development advancing from the west. It is an area that is too special to drill. Its value as wildlife habitat, historic rangeland, a recreational playground and the headwaters of 15 watersheds far exceeds that of the natural gas that could be extracted from it.
In 2008, when the threat of oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide began to become apparent, the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC) formed to eliminate the threat of gas drilling from the area. Since then, TDC has built a broad-based alliance of ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, recreationalists and businesspeople united in the desire to keep the Thompson Divide drill-rig-free.
While WW and TDC have the same goal of protecting the Thompson Divide, we pursue different tactics. TDC’s focus is on negotiating with leaseholders to retire existing oil and gas leases and on getting an Act of Congress prohibiting any future leasing of the area. WW’s main role is “interim defense” – making sure there’s still a Thompson Divide worth saving.
This page gives a big-picture view of the work being done to save the Thompson Divide, and who’s doing what. The work generally falls into three main categories:
1. Retire the existing leases
Oil and gas companies hold about 70 leases within the Thompson Divide area. A valid lease (this is italicized because we believe many of these leases aren’t valid) gives the leaseholder a right to apply for a drilling permit to develop oil and gas on the lease. In early 2012, the Thompson Divide Coalition sent letters of intent to leaseholders indicating that it would pay $2.5 million for the leases. The $2.5 million was based on amounts leaseholders have paid to the federal government to purchase and hold the leases. At least some of the leaseholders have responded to TDC’s offer, and negotiations are ongoing. We wish TDC luck in this effort.
2. Provide interim protection
Even as the leaseholders are negotiating (or not) with the Thompson Divide Coalition, they are actively pursuing plans to drill. The two main players are SG Interests and Ursa Resources. For details on exactly what these companies are proposing, see this annotated map.
In February 2013, with the clock running out on their leases, SG and Ursa filed suspension requests with the BLM – that is, they asked for more time. Despite overwhelming public support for letting the leases expire, the BLM in April chose to suspend the leases for one year, keeping the threat of development alive.
Like the Thompson Divide Coalition, WW respects valid, existing leases. However, many of the Thompson Divide leases were issued in violation of various laws and agency regulations, including roadless-area protections, and some may have been obtained through illegal bid-rigging. Our task, therefore, is to hold the BLM’s and Forest Service to their own regulations and prevent the development of these invalid leases.
The BLM’s suspension decision at least acknowledged that many of the Thompson Divide leases have “deficiencies,” in that their environmental impacts weren’t properly analyzed at the time. To remedy the problem, the agency has committed to conducting a new environmental review of the leases and to reconsidering whether it should have issued these leases in the first place – an unprecedented step, as far as we’re aware. The BLM is retaining authority to cancel the leases if it finds that they shouldn’t have been issued, and to add additional protective stipulations to existing leases if warranted.
WW is strenuously intervening in this process, as well as in the White River National Forest’s revision of its oil and gas leasing analysis, to ensure that the federal agencies weigh the full range of environmental impacts and human costs of development – air and water pollution, wildlife habitat degradation, loss of traditional economic activities and recreation, etc. We will file technical comments, protests, appeals, and (if it comes to it) lawsuits to ensure that these factors are given due consideration in the decision-making process.
Citizens play an essential role in this. We can make solid arguments and demand action, but it’s emails and participation in meetings by members of the public that convince the decision-makers to do anything beyond business as usual. Please see our action page for ways you can get involved.
3. Get an act of Congress to ensure that no more leases will ever be issued in the Thompson Divide
Good news here! In March, Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill that would permanently withdraw most of the Thompson Divide from availability for oil and gas leasing.
To be clear, while the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act would prevent any future leasing, it leaves valid existing leases intact. In other words, those leases will stay on the books until they’re invalidated, bought out or allowed to expire; failing that, there remains an imminent threat of development in the Thompson Divide. Still, this is a huge step toward protecting the Thompson Divide in the long term.
It is also, essentially, a sustainable economic development bill. It values the good jobs and quality of life that we already have over the transient industrial boom (and bust) that drilling would bring. It supports the traditional activities (like ranching and farming) and protects the long-term assets (scenery, wildlife, recreational opportunities, clean water and air) that are the true basis of our prosperous local economy.
Given the prevailing “drill, baby, drill” mentality in Washington, it takes real courage to wade into this issue and propose protection of this area. We applaud Sen. Bennet for taking this stand.