Wilderness coalition opposes looming gas leases | VailDaily.com

Wilderness coalition opposes looming gas leases

Scott Condon
AP Photo/David Zalubowski Flames leap skyward in front of a drilling rig at the site of a natural gas well being drilled by Encana Company on Hunter's Mesa near Eagle. Environmentals groups are opposed to a federal plan to lease public lands in the region for oil and gas exploration.

A coalition of environmental groups is trying to convince the Bureau of Land Management that it shouldn’t offer thousands of acres of public lands for lease to the oil and gas industry on May 13.

The coalition, headed by the Wilderness Society, contends that 31 of 77 parcels being offered for lease and potentially opened for gas and oil exploration have wilderness characteristics. Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society’s Four Corners office, said if those parcels are leased and explored they will forever lose their special qualities and no longer be eligible for wilderness designation.

“Oil and gas is not the only purpose for BLM lands,” he said.

The environmental coalition has been lobbying for years to get 1.6 million additional acres designated wilderness in Colorado, including 1.3 million acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Under President Bush’s administration, the bureau has stopped considering new lands for wilderness.

Now, Smith said, the very thing the environmentalists feared is coming to roost: The lands which they felt deserved protection could be seriously damaged.

Most of those lands are in the West Slope canyon country between Parachute and the Utah border, but some are in the Thompson Creek area, west of Carbondale.

Richard Compton, director of the White River Conservation Project, which is working to protect roadless areas, said if oil and gas exploration occurs in the Thompson Creek parcels it would damage some of the best wildlife habitat in Colorado. Thompson Creek is on the eastern edge of a 125,000-acre roadless area that Compton calls “the forgotten wilderness” because public land managers have done nothing to preserve it.

That parcel has the largest concentration of old-growth spruce fir in the White River National Forest and possibly the largest aspen forest in the world, according to the Wilderness Society.

That massive roadless area forms a rough triangle, extending south to McClure Pass and northwest toward Rifle. Compton said oil and gas exploration is already creeping into the roadless area.

When the lands are offered for lease May 13, the leases will be sold at auction. The successful bidders have a certain amount of time to drill at least one well on the parcel, Smith said. The amount of time available to drill varies with different leases, he said.

If the leaseholder meets that deadline, it holds the lease forever. If it doesn’t, the lease expires but can be offered again in the future, Smith said.

So the sale of a lease doesn’t guarantee there will be drilling. And the drilling of an exploratory well doesn’t guarantee there will be widespread development of wells, the environmental community concedes.

Pete Kolbenschlag, a spokesman for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said the environmental community would rather stop the leases than gamble that the leased ground won’t prove lucrative enough for oil and gas development.

“Stopping it five years from now when they decide to develop is next to impossible,” said Kolbenschlag.

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