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 within that framework it explains 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. Some leaseholders have rejected the offer as way too low while others simply haven’t responded.
We wish TDC luck on this effort. Meanwhile, we’re pursuing our own strategy of challenging inappropriate development and invalid leases.
2. Provide interim protection
Most of the leases in the Thompson Divide were issued in 2003, with 10-year terms, which means that they’re approaching expiration. For leaseholders, expiration dates should be use-it-or-lose-it deadlines. Unfortunately, the BLM is loathe to let leases expire unless leaseholders clearly don’t want them. There are all kinds of mechanisms for extending lease terms (e.g., unitization and suspension), and frequently approval of such mechanisms is a rubber-stamp exercise for the agency. So, part of interim defense is to ensure that the leaseholders and the agencies are complying with applicable laws and regulations. That means scrutinizing every lease and every proposal that would affect existing leases to ensure that the public interest and the law aren’t getting shortcut.
Given the current low market prices for natural gas, companies probably can’t drill a lot of these leases profitably – but they got such screaming deals on the leases (many were purchased for just $2 per acre, the minimum bid amount) that they don’t want to let them go. Therefore, they’re trying to extend the terms of their leases as long as possible, with the smallest possible investment up-front.
This is what’s driving the flurry of applications in the past year, and the Wilderness Workshop is taking the lead on parrying these threats. We’ve actually been wrangling with the BLM since 2009 over management of the Willow Creek Unit, where five leases that have never been drilled should have expired. In 2011 we broke the story that SG Interests had submitted a proposal to “unitize” 18 leases totaling 30,000 acres in the heart of the Thompson Divide. In the fall of 2012, SG formally applied to drill on six of the leases. In February, SG and a second company, Ursa Resources, which recently bought seven leases in the East Divide headwaters, requested “suspension” – that is, extension – of their Thompson Divide leases. Despite overwhelming public opposition, on April 10 the BLM granted a one-year suspension of the leases.
Like the Thompson Divide Coalition, WW respects valid, existing leases. But we’re challenging the validity of many of the Thompson Divide leases on the grounds that they were issued in violation of various laws and agency regulations, or were obtained through illegal bid-rigging. And where development is proposed on valid leases, we’re strenuously intervening 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 members of the public writing emails and attending meetings 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 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.