Garfield County won’t support effort to stop drilling in Thompson Divide area |

Garfield County won’t support effort to stop drilling in Thompson Divide area

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Garfield County officials on Monday declined to back a move to introduce national legislation to prevent natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area.

But, after rejecting a bid for support from the Thompson Divide Coalition, the Board of County Commissioners then invited U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., to appear at a future commissioners meeting to discuss the matter.

The TDC has been working for more than a year to preserve the Thompson Divide area, located to the west of Carbondale, from oil and gas drilling. Among the group’s arguments is that the Thompson Divide area is of only “marginal” value as a gas resource, while it is of “critical” value as a relatively undisturbed region of canyons and high mesas.

High on the group’s list of priorities has been to enlist the support and help of Salazar, who is seen as key to winning congressional approval for any legislation concerning drilling in the Thompson Divide area.

Toward that end, the group recently drew up a draft bill that would withdraw federally owned lands within the 221,500-acre Thompson Divide area from new mineral leasing.

The bill would also set up a process for existing leases to be acquired from willing lease holders, either by voluntary donation, purchase, exchange or retirement of leases.

The proposed legislation would protect the rights of current lease holders, TDC President Jock Jacober said in June, shortly after the bill was written. But it also is viewed as helping to preserve a variety of recreational, environmental and scenic properties of an area that has been judged valuable to the nearby communities of Glenwood Springs and Rifle.

The commissioners expressed their general support for the TDC’s work in October 2009, but at Monday’s meeting Commissioner John Martin made it clear he wanted to group to do more in terms of working with gas industry operators and federal bureaucrats to win their support.

At least part of his interest, Martin said, was in seeing the continuation of Garfield County’s revenue stream from oil and gas exploration. The county’s annual budget is predominantly funded by property taxes, and the lion’s share of those tax revenues and other income comes from the gas industry and, potentially, from other mineral extraction industries that might choose to work in this county.

“I have to look at it as a potential,” Martin said, adding later that the TDC needs to determine the value of the gas leases it hopes to eliminate, and hinting that the value of other minerals may be needed, too.

Commissioner Tresi Houpt said the proposed draft bill is “very broad, and it’s permissive. … It allows those negotiations to take place” to establish the value of the leases.

“It’s not going to paint anybody into a corner,” she said, echoing one of the phrases Martin used in objecting to the legislation.

The testimony of the TDC members was countered by the words of David Ludlam, director of the Western Slope branch of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, in industry lobbying group.

Ludlam maintained that the industry supports 147,000 jobs around Colorado, including many in Garfield County, and declared that “there is a significant resource at stake here.”

He said the industry believes the gas reserves in Thompson Divide are economically viable, and added, “You don’t lock off in perpetuity resources that have value to the United States.”

Martin, who held a short, private meeting with Ludlam prior to the commissioners meeting, said Salazar himself had urged Martin to get all the different interests at a table to discuss things.

Adding that he recognizes the beauty and intrinsic natural splendor of the area, Martin quipped, “Sometimes scenery doesn’t pay the bills.”

Commissioner Mike Samson, backing up Martin, said that the TDC “needs to reach even more” to industry and explore what is known as the “buy-back option,” which would take into account the value of the gas reserves if fully developed.

After outvoting Houpt’s bid to support the draft legislation by a margin of 2-1, Martin and Samson then voted with Houpt in favor of inviting Salazar to come to a meeting in Garfield County.

Martin insisted, “It is not a dead issue, and I’m not against the Thompson Divide Coalition.”