by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Opponents of natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area met last week for the first time with the company seeking to break ground there, as federal authorities continue to review a drilling request despite objections of both of Colorado’s U.S. Senators.
Staffers from Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall’s offices also sat in on the meeting in Carbondale last Friday between the Thompson Divide Coalition and natural gas company SG Interests. The meeting was organized by Rep. Scott Tipton.
Bennet and Udall last month wrote a letter to the nation’s top two public lands officials, asking to delay a decision that could pave the way for drilling in the area. The senators asked it be put off so that discussions between public officials, SG and concerned locals could move forward and perhaps reach a compromised resolution.
Specifically, the senators asked that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) delay reviewing a request from SG to “unitize” 18 of its Divide leases. If approved, it would enable the company to drill wells on a 32,000-acre area, if SG could drill one successful test well there within six months of approval.
SG and other gas companies hold more than 70 natural gas drilling leases in the area, which stretches across a rugged forested area from Carbondale to McClure Pass.
On Wednesday, BLM director Robert V. Abbey sent a response to Bennet and Udall explaining the unitization process, and stating that it was moving forward. He noted that the already-leased lands are open for development, but that specific drilling sites would require more permits and more extensive review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“Unitization is an administrative action that is categorically excluded from NEPA analysis,” he added. “However, in accordance with Federal regulations, the BLM will continue to accept comments from the public as it evaluates the unit application.”
David Boyd, spokesman for the BLM in Colorado, confirmed the review is proceeding.
“We are continuing to carefully review and discuss it,” he said.
Meanwhile, last week’s meeting brought together SG vice president Robbie Guinn, who traveled to Carbondale from Houston, and Thompson Divide Coalition members for their first meeting.
“It was a very positive meeting, in that we were just listening to each other,” Divide Coalition chair Dorothea Farris said. “They are not negotiations. They are conversations.”
The largely informational meeting included a geologist’s presentation from SG that mirrored one the company gave to the BLM for the unitization request. The coalition countered with a specialized geologist of its own, who focused on alleged adverse environmental impact.
Farris said they hope to meet again after the new year.
Bennet and Udall’s letter last month was hopeful such meetings would be fruitful: “After further discussions between parties, it may well be that a viable, consensus-based development plan for the area may emerge.”
The complex bureaucratic cast of characters converging on the Thompson Divide controversy also includes the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which last month issued a ruling upholding the 2001 “roadless rule” restricting road-building on undeveloped public lands including much of the Thompson Divide area.
That rule, enacted by President Bill Clinton as he left office, was later tweaked by President George W. Bush to allow more development. The Divide leases were issued under Bush’s less stringent roadless rule. But it’s still unclear how, if at all, the court decision will affect drilling or the unitization request.