Environmentalists make final bid to block energy leases | VailDaily.com

Environmentalists make final bid to block energy leases

Scott Condon

The Pitkin County commissioners and a coalition of environmental groups made a desperate attempt Wednesday to prevent 1,560 acres of rugged forest land from being leased for natural gas development.

The commissioners and the environmental coalition filed separate protests with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to try to remove the land in extreme western Pitkin County from being offered at an auction in Denver Thursday. Those parcels are located southwest of Carbondale in the Thompson Creek area.

They won’t immediately know if their efforts are successful. The bureau’s regulations say that in cases like this, gas leases on those parcels will still be offered at the auction. The bureau will consider the merits of the protests and delay issuing the lease until it reaches a decision. If protests are denied by the bureau, appeals can be filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C. That protest process, even if it is unsuccessful, could delay the issuing of gas leases for months.

Both the protest by the county commissioners and the protest by the environmental coalition contend that three parcels partially located in Pitkin County are part of a massive roadless area that provides some of the best wildlife habitat remaining in Colorado. Development of roads and drilling pads, then production of natural gas, will cause irreparable harm, the groups contend.

A spokesman for the oil and gas industry said that’s typical environmental rhetoric.

“They can claim whatever they want. They’re trying to stop gas development in the West. That’s their mission, regardless of what they say,” said Greg Schnacke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Steve Smith, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, one of the groups that filed the protest, said Schnacke was exaggerating the environmental groups’ position. Smith said the coalition filed protests over 32 of 73 parcels eligible for gas leases.

The conservation groups only filed protests over lands they felt had a higher and better use than gas development, Smith said. The Wilderness Society contends that its research of gas development in the Rocky Mountain states shows that only 40 percent of leased lands have wells that are producing. Given that, Smith said, there should be no rush to develop lands that have wilderness characteristics.

Smith said the Thompson Creek Roadless Area, where the parcels in western Pitkin County are located, should receive permanent protection as wilderness. And that roadless area is tied to other roadless areas that create invaluable habitat and migration routes for black bear, deer, elk and countless other wildlife specifies. Those roadless areas combine to create a 125,000-acre complex that is “the largest unprotected contiguous wild area in Colorado,” according to the protest.

The environmental groups that filed the protest with the Wilderness Society are Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, Colorado Mountain Club, Western Colorado Congress, Colorado Environmental Coalition and White River Conservation Project.

Schnacke said the Bureau of Land Management will hold whatever company places the winning bid for the gas leases to high environmental standards before it issues permits to drill. Rules will regulate how it drills and reclamation of the area after production is finished.

“The rules that we operate under are the strictest in the world,” he said.

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