BLM launches EIS on existing White River National Forest leases

The US Bureau of Land Management initiated an environmental impact statement on 65 existing oil and gas leases in Colorado’s White River National Forest. The move came after the US Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals identified National Environmental Policy Act deficiencies in the leases.

BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office announced in an Apr. 2 Federal Register notice that it is beginning a 30-day public comment scoping period which will include open house meetings Apr. 15 in Glenwood Springs, Apr. 16 in Carbondale, and Apr. 17 in Aspen. Written comments must be submitted by May 6.

“Scoping comments that are specific to this area and these existing leases will be the most effective as we draft the alternatives we will analyze in the EIS,” said Steve Bennett, the field office’s manager. “Public involvement is a critical piece of this analysis and we will consider a wide range of alternatives, which will be made available for public review and comment when drafted.”

BLM expects to release a draft of the EIS and alternatives for public review in early 2015, he indicated. As a result of this EIS, the agency said it could cancel the existing leases, modify their terms and conditions, or keep the existing terms and conditions in place.

It also extended lease suspensions for 25 tracts in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale through Apr. 1, 2016, because they will be included in the EIS. SG Interests holds 18 of the leases and Ursa Resources Group holds seven. Both independent producers are based in Houston.

NEPA deficiencies found

BLM said it is conducting the EIS to address deficiencies in the 65 leases’ environmental analysis. DOI’s land appeals board ruled in 2007 that before including any White River National Forest tracts in a lease sale, BLM must either formally adopt the US Forest Service’s analysis or perform its own. It has decided to take the latter course through this EIS.

The Western Energy Alliance and West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association (WSCOGA) jointly applauded BLM’s decision to extend SG and Ursa’s Thompson Divide leases.

The agency has prevented development of the holdings “for various bureaucratic reasons such as extended unitization determinations, lengthy and redundant NEPA analysis, and failure to approve units and permits to drill,” the trade associations said in a Mar. 31 statement. “Today, BLM correctly recognized its role in delaying development on the leases and wisely granted an extension.”

BLM said Ursa submitted its first development proposal in 2009, followed by a request to unitize its seven leases in 2012. SG Interests first submitted a unitization proposal in 2011, followed by development proposals in 2012, the agency added.

Two Carbondale environmental groups, the Thompson Divide Coalition and Wilderness Workshop, oppose oil and gas activity in the more than 220,000-acre Thompson Divide. They say its wildlife habitat, historic range land, recreational, and headwaters of 15 watersheds are of greater value.

Withdrawal bill introduced

US Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced S. 651, the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, on Mar. 22, 2013. It would prohibit further oil and gas leasing there and give existing leaseholders to donate, voluntarily exchange, or otherwise relinquish their tracts. Colorado’s other US senator, Mark Udall (D), became a cosponsor on Oct. 31, 2013.

WEA and WCOGA said they strongly disagree with the bill and the groups’ premise that Thompson Divide oil and gas activity is incompatible with the other uses.

“Oil and natural gas companies conduct operations in a responsible manner that protects the environment and the land while providing affordable, reliable energy to America,” said Kathleen Sgamma, WEA’s vice-president of government and public affairs, adding, “Companies reclaim land so successfully that areas with prior and even active production are regularly proposed for wilderness protection. We see this pattern repeated all over the West.”

She said, “Small businesses invest millions of dollars trying to provide energy to the American people, only to have the federal government prevent them from obtaining a return on their investment.”

WSCOGA Executive Director David Ludlam, meanwhile, observed, “The extension is an important symbol that the BLM recognizes the importance and sanctity of contracts and that agricultural interests, timber harvesters and oil and gas companies will only have confidence to invest in our public lands when their federal business partners act and operate in good faith.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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