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BLM’s leasing deficiency NEPA and the Thompson Divide

Will Roush

You might remember back in February when citizens packed the town hall in Carbondale to ask the BLM to let the gas leases in the Thompson Divide* naturally expire at the end of their ten-year terms. Unfortunately, the BLM suspended the leases, allowing the gas companies more time to attempt drilling in the Thompson Divide. On the positive side though the BLM also acknowledged that most of those leases were issued illegally and without proper environmental review or roadless-area protections and so they committed to doing an environmental review of the illegal leases.
And if you’re like me, you’ve got a lot of questions about where things currently stand. Has the review happened? Did the BLM make a decision? Are the leases going to expire next year? Why would anyone write a blog titled “BLM leasing deficiency NEPA?” Read on to get (some of) your questions answered, or stop here for the short version: No. No. We’re not sure. An acronym addiction is really hard to kick.

O.K. here’s the long answer. As I mentioned above, as a way to resolve the issue of the illegally issued leases, the BLM (the Bureau of Land Management and the federal agency in charge of leasing oil and gas on federal lands) committed to conducting an environmental review of those leases under requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. This type of review or assessment is required for all federal projects and ensures the government both takes a hard look at environmental impacts and solicits public comment.

As a result of this review and analysis of the leases, the BLM can basically do one of three things. It can conclude that issuing leases in the Thompson Divide was the right decision all along and make no changes. It can decide that the leases need to be modified or have ‘stipulations’ added to them – things like not allowing any development in roadless areas or next to streams and lakes. Or it can acknowledge that it made a big mistake issuing leases in an area of such importance to the local community and void the leases.

Not only is voiding the leases the appropriate thing to do since the leases were illegally issued, but there is good precedent for it as well. Back in 2009, the BLM was faced with a nearly identical situation in which they again failed to conduct a pre-leasing environmental analysis on three leases owned by Encana in the Thompson Divide. As a result they voided all three leases and refunded the company for lease bid and rental costs.

As to the timing of the BLM’s review (called an Environmental Impact Statement or EIS). Last we heard it was set to begin the process by the end of October but due to the government shutdown that date has obviously been pushed back, so we expect an announcement sometime in November.  So stay tuned to APR for breaking news on the Thompson Divide and this blog for another scintillating interpretation of a new set of government acronyms.

Credit Will Roush

* For folks who haven’t heard of the Thompson Divide, it’s located just to the west of Carbondale and south of Glenwood. It encompasses some of our valley’s richest agricultural lands and most important wildlife habitat. About half of it is also leased for gas drilling , which has got local ranchers, mt. bikers, business owners and citizens up-in-arms and working to protect the place. For those of you just getting up to speed, there’s good background information here or some great stories of people working to protect the Thompson Divide.

Will Roush has worked at the Wilderness Workshop since the summer of 2009 where he began by inventorying lands proposed for wilderness designation. Now that those lands are part of congressional wilderness proposals he works as an organizer and advocate to designate those lands and to protect the Thompson Divide from gas development. Will also organizes the  Naturalist Nights winter speaker series, runs Wilderness Workshop's restoration program, and serves on the steering committee of the Roaring Fork Valley Future Forest Roundtable. Will grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and has a masters in Geography and Environmental Studies examining the impact of climate change on alpine ecosystems. He currentlyserveson the boards of ACES and Ecojustice, Canada's only national environmental law firm. When not at a desk, Will likes to play in the woods, on the rocks and over the snow.

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