Thompson Divide announcement draws questions about the future of public lands

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell travelled to the state Capitol Thursday morning to formally announce the Bureau of Land Management’s cancellation of 25 undeveloped oil and gas leases in Colorado’s Thompson Divide and its decision to keep fossil fuel development off of the top of the Roan Plateau.

The Thompson Divide, a 221,500-acre swath of open space south of Glenwood Springs, has been a point of contention between oil and gas developers and Coloradans for more than a decade, since it was discovered that 65 oil and gas leases there were issued improperly. Located within the White River and Gunnison National Forest in western Colorado, it is considered some of the most pristine wilderness in the state.

The Roan Plateau, located just northeast of Rifle, is known for its ecological diversity, including elk, deer and cutthroat trout.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who proudly introduced Jewell, called the hard-won cancellation of the 25 oil and gas leases a “perfect compromise” between oil and gas developers and the hunters, ranchers and campers who rely on and enjoy the lands of the Thompson Divide. The BLM will reimburse leaseholders for their investment in the leases to date, to the tune of about $1 million total.

That Jewell was able to wrest an agreement between industry and community members was “a testament to her commitment, not just to the job but to these landscapes,” Hickenlooper said, calling them “sacred places.” He emphasized that the land was home to some of the best fishing holes in Colorado, but that its oil and gas potential was “pretty darn limited.”

The compromise garnered praise from conservation groups across the state.

Zane Kessler, director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, called the decision “a gratifying moment…for the overwhelming majority of stakeholders.” Mike Freeman, an attorney with environmental firm EarthJustice, said, “We’re really pleased with it. It’s a critical step forward.”

But both Kessler and Freeman acknowledged limitations to the compromise. Of 65 original leases in the White River National Forest area, 40 of them will remain in place. These leases are slightly west of the Thompson Divide. Thirteen of them have not yet been developed, and will see additional regulations. Those that are already in production will see no change.

Freeman laments the exclusion of these 40 leases from the decision, saying the area to the west is “just as pristine and just as important,” yet remains largely unprotected. “The BLM talks about balance, but really they’ve just left half the job undone,” he said.

He says the BLM proposed to protect those lands — and the rivers, streams and habitats they contain — in its Environmental Impact Statement last year, but ultimately dropped the protections “under heavy industry pressure.”

Despite broad support from sportsmen, ranchers and conservationists, the Thompson Divide decision remains unpopular with the oil and gas companies affected. Robbie Guinn, vice president of leaseholder SG Interests, said the decision qualifies as a “taking of private property rights and/or a breach of the lease contracts,” and that his company will lose money despite the reimbursement. He said SG Interests plans to take legal action against the cancellation.

Kessler said he fully expects a legal challenge from the industry, but said, “We’ll fight like hell to make sure this decision stands.”

Media outlets at the Capitol Thursday were also interested whether the decision would stand under a Donald Trump presidency.

Secretary Jewell was confident: “The agreements on Roan and the Thompson Divide will stick.” The leases have been cancelled, so there is nothing the executive branch can do going forward, she said, adding that she just didn’t see Congress and the new administration overturning a decision with such broad and diverse support.

Jewell said that she and her staff were “geared up and ready” to speak with the Trump transition team, but had yet to hear anything. Trump has shortlisted former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his Interior Secretary, along with venture capitalist Robert Grady and oilmen Harold Hamm and Forrest Lucas.

In response to a question about whether her department anticipated a reversal in course under President Trump, Jewell said no, and added that the agency was hustling to complete unfinished projects simply to “clean up loose ends” to give the next administration a fresh start.

Attorney Freeman wouldn’t speculate about how federal land policy might change under a Trump presidency, but recalled the contentious battles that resulted when former President George W. Bush’s administration led efforts to open up public lands to the oil and gas industry.

“We’re hopeful that this decision, the cancellation of these leases, will be the end of the story,” he said, “but I think we’re prepared to defend those cancellations and protect the Thompson Divide for as long as it takes.”