Energy industry supporters call on BLM to honor leases

Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese speaks at a press conference conducted before a Bureau of Land Management hearing in De Beque as part of a review of 65 energy leases in Western Colorado. (Business Times photo)
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese speaks at a press conference conducted before a Bureau of Land Management hearing in De Beque as part of a review of 65 energy leases in Western Colorado. (Business Times photo)

Energy industry supporters turned out in force at a public hearing to call on the Bureau of Land Management to allow development to proceed on 65 oil and natural gas leases in Western Colorado.

“It is time for the BLM to work with the people who create jobs,” said Bonnie Peterson, executive director of Club 20, a coalition of businesses, individuals and government entities that advocates for the interests of the region.

The BLM conducted the hearing in De Beque as part of its process to conduct an environmental assessment of oil and natural leases, some dating back to 1993, following pressure from environmental groups who argued the leases were issued illegally.

In issuing the leases, the BLM had to either accept an environmental assessment that had been completed by the Forest Service or conduct its own. The BLM elected to accept the Forest Service assessment, but failed to attach paperwork stating so as part of the lease agreements.

The oversight already has resulted in a legal challenge and cancellation of three oil and gas leases in Pitkin County and prompted the BLM to redo the environmental assessment on the remaining 65 leases issued under the same circumstances.

The leases stretch from west of Carbondale in the disputed Thompson Divide area all the way to south of De Beque. The leases are located in Garfield and Mesa counties as well as Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties.

BLM officials said several options are on the table, from retaining the leases as they are to cancelling them.

The BLM initially held public scoping hearings in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Pressure from Mesa County officials prompted the agency to host another hearing in De Beque.

Economic development groups, government officials, industry representatives and residents have expressed concerns the leases could be voided.

At a press conference at De Beque High School prior to the hearing, Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said residents “are tired of the assault on our economy by the federal government.”   Pugliese promised the energy industry supports at the event, “We are going to fight for our county and our people.”

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the press conference she represented the hundreds of small businesses that belong to the chamber and could face economic harm if the leases are voided. “We are talking about 200 jobs and $11 million in purchases. These are jobs that pay more than $75,000 per year, offer health and 401(k) benefits — and this is just from one member affected.”

Schwenke said cancelling the leases also could hurt the business environment in the region. “This puts at risk the sanctity of contract and the ability to make business investments in Western Colorado.”

Peterson questioned the BLM decision to re-do the environmental assessment on the leases. “The major economic driver in the Western Slope is federal lands. The BLM had the opportunity to do something different, to accept the Forest Service assessment, but chose not to.”

At the hearing itself, the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-industry, in contrast with the earlier hearings. Many of those who spoke voiced support for oil and gas development and criticized the decision to review the leases.

State Rep. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction who flew over from Denver for the hearing, said he was “angry that it came to this,” Scott added: “These people should not have to take time out of their busy workdays to defend their way of life to the federal government.”

A handful of development opponents at the hearing seemed to take a more moderate stance than had been expressed at earlier hearings. A.J. Hobbes, a member of the Carbondale Town Council, spoke of a willingness to “communicate with each other and come up with a solution that will not hurt people at either end of (Garfield) County.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards reiterated her questions about the legality of the leases, but said she was “only concerned about the leases in Pitkin County” — an apparent reversal from earlier statements.