A Trump administration plan to allow oil and gas companies to drill on nearly 20,000 acres of land near Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is pitting current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper against Democrats in the state Senate— and some Democrats running to replace him.
Hickenlooper, a former oil geologist, did not publicly oppose plans to allow drilling on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, while every Democratic member of the state Senate did.
At issue is an effort by the federal Bureau of Land Management to auction off leases to 18,358 acres— a portion of which is located, as the crow flies, about a mile from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, according to BLM maps. A BLM spokesman has said there would be no drilling in the park or in the San Luis Valley; the Sand Dunes are on the western side of the mountains.
The move comes as the administration of Republican President Donald Trump increases acreage to drilling for fossil fuels in the West. The 11 parcels near the national park in Colorado are scheduled for auction in September. Ten of them are within about eight miles of the park, maps show.
Initially, Hickenlooper appeared skeptical of the potential for drilling near the Great Sand Dunes, saying around mid-March, “obviously, I’m not excited about it,” and adding that he had concerns and would look into the plans. But after learning the potential drilling rigs would go up on the opposite side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the sand dunes, he did not protest the decision.
From The Denver Post on April 6:
Jacque Montgomery, a spokeswoman, said the governor asked his administration to evaluate the maps and “closely monitor the situation,” but ultimately decided against sending a letter of protest after he learned more details about the proposal.
Montgomery told The Colorado Independent the governor will continue to monitor the situation and if he has any new concerns he’ll voice them.
In contrast, all 16 Democrats in the state Senate sent a letter to the BLM’s acting director in Colorado, saying they opposed the federal effort. In the letter, the senators said they are concerned drill rigs could be visible from “the highest portions of the park,” and “noise and fumes would foul the experience” for visitors to the area.
The four Democrats running for governor, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, Congressman Jared Polis and former state senator Mike Johnston, largely said they oppose drilling near the park.
In a public break from the governor, Lynne, his second-in-command, said if she were in Hickenlooper’s shoes she would have handled the situation differently.
“As governor, I would take a different approach, making sure I talk to the appropriate elected officials and community members before making a decision,” Lynne told The Colorado Independent. “At present, I am in agreement with Democratic members of the General Assembly who oppose drilling in such close proximity to a national park.”
It’s unclear how much a governor in Colorado could actually do to oppose a federal agency’s leasing of land beyond just having a bully pulpit and a loud megaphone on the issue, according to attorneys who have worked in government and land use.
So far, potential drilling near the national park isn’t something that has come up along the campaign trail, says Johnston’s gubernatorial campaign. But, the former state senator said he would want more scrutiny on the plan.
“As governor, I would not permit drilling near the Sand Dunes to move forward until a deeper investigation of the potential environmental impacts can be commissioned and taken into consideration,” Johnston said.
As for Polis, who this week announced an endorsement of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes the federal parcel lease plan, he said he wouldn’t want to see drilling there.
“I am opposed to drilling next to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes,” he said. “I have always stood up to Donald Trump to protect our public lands and national parks and will continue to every time I see him selling off our public lands.” (In the case of the September auction, the land would be leased, not sold.)
Kennedy, who has declared her opposition to the sale of public lands to developers in speeches along the campaign trail, didn’t say specifically whether she would oppose drilling near what she called one of the state’s most treasured places.
“The fact that we are talking about drilling right outside the park raises considerable red flags for me,” she said. “The Trump administration has shown that they do not value public lands the way we as Westerners do. Because of this, the states need to be ever more vigilant in protecting our public lands.”