Enviro group appeals BLM decision to extend Colo. leases

Posted: May 10, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, Greenwire
Thompson Divide

A Colorado environmental group yesterday appealed the Bureau of Land Management's decision last month to extend more than two dozen leases in the state's rugged Thompson Divide area, arguing the agency should have let the leases expire.

Earthjustice, representing the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, said the owners of the 25 leases on the White River National Forest, most of them in roadless areas, failed to diligently develop them.

BLM last month granted one-year extensions to the leases owned by SG Interests and Ursa Resources Group, citing "agency-created delays in completing necessary environmental analysis." The agency also said it would review whether the leases issued in 2003 should be voided, reaffirmed or subject to new environmental protections (E&E Daily, April 10).

Companies generally must develop oil or gas on their leases within a decade.

"BLM bailed out these two companies by extending leases that it admits were issued in violation of the law and that hadn't been diligently developed," said Peter Hart, a conservation analyst and staff attorney with Wilderness Workshop. "The decision doesn't comply with agency regulations, snubs the existing values and uses in the Divide and ignores the will of local communities and the thousands of people from around the nation who asked BLM to let the illegal leases expire."

Pitkin County, which is home to roughly half the total 221,000 acres of federal land in the Thompson Divide, along with some towns, has also appealed the BLM decision to State Director Helen Hankins, spokesman David Boyd said.

BLM has 10 days to respond to the state director appeals. If appellants are unsatisfied, they may appeal the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, the agency's in-house judicial system.

The leases, which were set to expire in the coming months, are located in an area valued by ranchers, sportsmen and recreationists for its clean headwaters, intact habitats and diverse wildlife. Drilling opponents are trying to raise money to buy back roughly 100,000 acres of existing leases in the Thompson Divide.

"Sometimes BLM needs to just say 'no' to the oil and gas industry," said Michael Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice. "If we can't keep energy development out of a place like the Thompson Divide, what part of Colorado is safe?"

In its suspension notice for SG's leases last month, BLM noted that the Houston-based company "has made adequate efforts at development sufficient to warrant a suspension while the BLM completes corrective NEPA work to determine whether the leases should be voiced, reaffirmed, or subject to additional mitigation measures."

Boyd noted that the company first applied for unitization of the leases -- a procedure that aims for more orderly and efficient development -- in May 2011 and had filed applications to drill last year.

"Nevertheless, a decision on the unit application was delayed by pending consideration and internal deliberation of the issues raised in comment from interest parties on that request," BLM said in its notice.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has sponsored legislation to protect the 221,000-acre area from future mineral development while respecting the rights of valid leaseholders.

"While I know many communities in the Thompson Divide area had hoped the leases would expire this May, I am pleased to see that BLM has recognized the importance of the ongoing community dialog over future development," Bennet said in a statement last month. He urged passage of his bill and supported continued efforts to buy back existing leases.

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