Drilling battle continues in Rocky Mountains | VailDaily.com

Drilling battle continues in Rocky Mountains

Post Independent Photo/Jim Noelker

A coalition of environmental groups has gained another ally in the attempt to prevent additional public lands in Pitkin County from being leased for natural gas exploration.

A group known as the Crystal River Caucus voted to “object strenuously” to leasing and drilling on public lands throughout the Crystal River area without extensive studies of the environmental impacts.

While some in the group want to prevent drilling at all costs, other members say they aren’t opposed to natural gas production if the public land managers at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make sure it doesn’t harm the environment.

The Pitkin County Commissioners and the Carbondale Town Council had already joined the environmental groups in opposition to leasing public lands for gas production.

Concerns have been triggered by the Bureau of Land Management’s lease in May of two parcels of public lands in extreme western Pitkin County. About 1,560 acres southwest of Carbondale in the vast Thompson Creek area were offered for lease and purchased by a brokerage company working on behalf of undisclosed oil and gas companies.

Environmental groups headed by the Aspen-based Wilderness Workshop filed protests that are pending over the lease of those parcels.

In an effort to give both sides in the issue their say, caucus leaders invited representatives of EnCana Oil and Gas Inc., a major natural gas producer in western Colorado, and the Wilderness Workshop to give presentations at their meeting.

EnCana didn’t respond to the invitation, according to Bill Fales, a co-moderator of the caucus meeting.

The environmental watchdogs are now poised to protest any lease in roadless areas, such as Thompson Creek. While roads protrude into sections of the Thompson Creek area, there are thousands of acres of untouched land that is prime habitat for wildlife, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop.

Thompson Creek is part of a 125,000-acre areas that’s the largest roadless complex in Colorado, he said.

“Ecologically it’s a really important chunk of the landscape,” he said.

A woman in the audience at the caucus meeting questioned if opposition to gas production would do any good. “Do we have a snowball’s chance of stopping this?” she asked.

The conservation groups say that protesting the sales ” on the grounds that the lands are too ecologically valuable to risk damaging ” is the key to preventing gas production. It is virtually impossible to prevent a company from acquiring a drilling permit once it has a lease.

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