Tipton lease swap bill criticized as handout to the oil and gas industry _ aspen daily news online

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Garfield County commissioners support draft, and encourage a compromise

Concerned residents of the North Fork Valley made the pilgrimage to Garfield County on Wednesday to voice their opposition to a draft bill being championed by U. S. Rep. Scott Tipton that proposes a land swap in the Thompson Divide.

Tipton has not yet officially introduced the Western Colorado Lease Exchange and Conservation Act of 2016, but it has already raised the hackles of many conservationists, who are calling it a handout to the oil and gas industry.

The legislation seeks to swap more than 30,000 acres of public land in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison national forests for equal acreage in the Thompson Divide near Carbondale. The leases in question are owned by Houston-based oil-and-gas companies SG Interests and Ursa Piceance LLC.

The bill could also pass control of the Wolf Creek natural gas storage area over to a local municipality, if it elected to take over the leases. Those resources supply Pitkin County residents and the city of Aspen with its natural gas.

The “discussion” draft was laid out for the Garfield County commissioners at the special meeting in Glenwood Springs.

Brian Meinhart, regional director and policy advisor for Tipton, told the commissioners that the bill is not yet “set in stone” and public comment is being sought to help shape it prior to introduction in Congress. He said there are two main “asks” of the bill including conservationists’ desire for the removal of leases on federal land within the Thompson Divide, and legislation that will the make leaseholders whole on their investments from the industry’s perspective.

Meinhart added that he will be going before the Pitkin County commissioners on April 26 to discuss the draft legislation.

Around 20 people attended the special meeting with many representing the North Fork Valley, which would take on the burden of the swapped leases. Their collective voice accused the bill of effectively throwing their valley under the bus, and many were upset that Tipton hadn’t talked with residents prior to issuing the draft bill.

Alex Johnson, executive director of the Western Slope Conservation Center, said the lease exchange places the future tourism, recreation, and agriculture economy of the North Fork Valley in jeopardy.

He said permanent protection for areas in the proposed swap are vital to “creating a sustainable economy for us into the future.”

Phyllis Swackhamer, a Paonia resident and board member of the Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) group, told the commissioners that the North Fork would be negatively affected by the land exchange.

She noted that the financial benefits of oil and gas are always touted by Tipton, but extraction could harm more lasting economic drivers in her valley such as agriculture, recreation, hunting, and fishing.

“As our population increases, more and more people need places to get out to enjoy,” Swackhamer, said. “Our animals need more places to be because humans keep encroaching on their environments. Nothing I have seen in … research studies says that oil-and-gas economics is better than recreation, hunting, and fishing.”

She added that the Delta County commissioners have said the swap will not provide many jobs in the area.

“I live at the base of the watershed, the airshed, the foodshed,” she said. “It’s one of my recreation areas and you talk about the Thompson Divide area being beautiful, I invite you to come over and look at our area over there. … It’s a very special place. It’s not acreage to me, it’s my home.”

Bill doesn’t include permanent protection for Thompson Divide

One major roadblock in the swap is conservationists’ desire for the Thompson Divide to be closed to leasing in perpetuity. Tipton has long been opposed to this idea, citing uncertain energy needs in the future.

Meinhart said that the leases in the Divide would fall under the new White River National Forest’s recent record of decision that precludes all leasing in that area for the foreseeable future.

“We’re looking at, at a minimum, two decades worth of protection for that area,” he said. “We can’t know with any certainty with the national energy landscape what American energy needs will be 20 years from now. So we feel that it’s a bad policy to remove a resource in perpetuity.”

The WRNF decision typically stands for roughly 20 years before being reassessed.

Meinhart said that Tipton is taking an all-of-the-above approach to the country’s fuel portfolio, and the leases should be honored.

He said the aim is to get the measure fleshed out as soon as possible so it can be introduced in the shortened legislative session, due to the upcoming presidential election.

Meinhart added that if the leases acquired by the extraction companies under the swap are valued greater than those in Thompson Divide, the difference would be placed in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If the opposite were true, then the companies would simply write off the difference, he said.

NEPA exclusion

The bill also seeks to circumvent one phase of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that Meinhart says isn’t needed. The categorical exclusion relates to the NEPA process as part of an oil and gas lease sale.

“The reason why that’s in there isn’t because we don’t think NEPA is important,” he said. “But if we’re going to be identifying specific parcels for exchange, doing NEPA at that phase is redundant because it’s a foregone conclusion that certain acreage would be acquired as a lease.”

But Peter Hart, attorney for Wilderness Workshop, said that the public process would be undercut if that phase of NEPA is eliminated.

“If you’re basically eliminating the NEPA process prior to lease issuance, you are foreclosing opportunities for public participation,” he said. “Our initial take is that this looks like a real good deal for SG Interests and Ursa, but it doesn’t look like a good deal for the public.”

Wayne Urbonas, executive director for CHC, disagreed with the assessment that NEPA is redundant.

“It’s iterative, it’s a review to improve process,” he said. “NEPA has assisted Colorado greatly in terms of maintaining or enhancing the integrity of our air quality and of wastewater. NEPA at its best sense is a very valuable tool that we can use to our advantage. It’s not redundant, it’s iterative.”

Meinhart said that while a NEPA violation did occur, it wasn’t a gross infraction.

“I still stand firm in my belief that the violation was a we-forgot-to-sign-on-the-dotted-line violation,” he said.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky agreed with the NEPA exclusion in the bill, and expressed his general support for the measure. But he stressed that Glenwood Springs should not be used as a haul route, which would bring too much traffic to the already often gridlocked city roads. He added that voiding the leases would be seen as a “takings” of a private property right.

“I think if the BLM continues forward with their environmental impact statement … this will end up in court,” he said. “I just think this is a much better way to do this.”

Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher and Paonia resident, said he has invested heavily in the area, and extraction would constitute a takings of what he has worked so hard for. He added that everyone knew the coal industry was burning out in the area, and agriculture and recreation would sustain Paonia into the future.

“What I didn’t see coming was this gas attack, which will end my hope at least for the direction Paonia will take in our future,” he said. “It represents a takings of my considerable investment in Paonia, which depended on an evolution of our community.”

Glenwood Springs and Carbondale have supported cancellation the leases in the Divide, while Garfield County voted in favor of a BLM option that would have kept all 65 leases intact.

Legislation doesn’t account for BLM process

Urbonas said that at a time in which the BLM is making amends for past mistakes, this bill takes that process back to the “dark ages,” adding that the leases were issued illegally in the first place.

“There shouldn’t be any tiptoeing around this fact,” he said. “We appreciate the fact that Garfield County wants to listen to its constituents and protect the environment. On the North Fork Valley we are adamantly opposed to this.”

In February, the BLM unveiled a preliminary preferred alternative for 65 existing contested oil and gas leases on federal land owned by SG and Ursa. That decision would see 25 leases located in the Divide voided, precluding the idea of a swap. A draft environmental impact statement determined that the NEPA analysis for the 65 leases “is no longer adequate due to changes in laws, regulations, policies and conditions.”

During a public comment period from Nov. 20 to Jan. 8, close to 60,000 statements were received by the BLM, with the vast majority supporting cancellation of the leases.

Meinhart said that if the BLM alternative comes to light, legal action on the part of the extractive industry will ensue since an oil-and-gas lease is a legally-binding contract.

“That contract has to be honored. … We can’t be changing the rules of the game midstream,” he said. “If we want to move forward before the BLM completes its process, that’s again one of those [situations] where it doesn’t matter what decision they make, somebody is going to be upset about it.

“If they cancel the leases industry is going to be upset about it, and if they don’t then the folks that would like to see the leases removed from the area will be upset about it,” Meinhart continued. “No matter what happens there, there’s going to be a legal challenge there, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

He added that a legal challenge will undermine any collaboration between the two sides.

Despite the arguments against the draft bill, one local rancher implored the audience to reconsider their opposition. Carrie Couey of Silt said extraction has taken place on her ranch, and the land is no worse for the wear.

“You might want to keep an open mind about the process,” she said. “Where the oil-and-gas development occurred on our ranch is fantastic habitat for deer and elk. And aside from a few containers that you see with development, it has maintained its pristineness there.”

Couey invited anyone present to tour the ranch and see for themselves.

“Oil and gas companies are very good stewards of the land,” she said. “Families need to work somewhere.”

Bill based on SG proposal?

Local conservation groups and politicians are claiming that Tipton’s draft bill mirrors the content of a proposal written by SG Interests last year.

Dorothea Farris, former Pitkin County commissioner and Thompson Divide Coalition board member, said that the bill was not born from a spirit of collaboration.

“The conservation measures that we discussed and that we want … for agricultural use, recreational use, wildlife use, all the things we’ve talked about for eight years have been explained and [Tipton] has had every opportunity to participate,” she said. “However, suddenly we see a proposal that is a restatement of what was drafted by SG Interests in 2015.

“I read in the [papers] that Robbie Guinn, [vice president for land at] SG, thinks it’s a wonderful proposal. Well, of course, they wrote it,” Farris added.

She said the draft is riddled with problems, and questioned the lateness of its emergence. Farris said that the bill won’t go anywhere before Tipton is “out of office,” foreshadowing the District 3 election this November.

She added that the congressman needs to go back to the drawing board and work with the people of the North Fork Valley before issuing another bill that affects them.

But Commissioner Mike Samson defended Tipton from criticism of not meeting with the residents of the North Fork.

“I would challenge you to be a U. S. representative and try to go to every local meeting within the jurisdiction you represent,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen, so you have to cut the congressman a little slack.”

But he did encourage Meinhart to travel to Paonia and have a meeting with constituents.

Others sounded off on the proposal in a prepared statement issued by the TDC.

“Once again, Tipton is peddling the interests of Texas-based campaign donors over the interests of his own constituents.” said Leo McKinney, Glenwood Springs council member. “This is nothing more than an industry kickback that goes against the local consensus we’ve worked so hard to build.”

Commissioner John Martin concluded the meeting by asking everyone in attendance to focus on collaboration and compromise.

“Find middle ground to make this work,” he said.

collin@aspendailynews. com