Colorado County Fights Renewals of Oil and Gas Leases

DENVER (CN) — Pitkin County, Colorado, home of Aspen, sued the federal government Wednesday for extending drilling rights on 25 oil and gas leases on the Thompson Divide, 220,000 acres of “extraordinary ecological value” in the White River National Forest.

The 10-year leases were to expire in 2013, but the Bureau of Land Management has extended them three times, even though “the companies holding the leases never drilled a well or produced oil and gas on any of them,” the county says in its federal complaint.

Sixty-one leases have been issued in the Thompson Divide, but the county challenges only the 25 extensions.

“The Divide covers much of western Pitkin County and powers the region’s economy by providing rich grazing lands and plentiful winter and summer outdoor recreation opportunities,” county says in the complaint. “Much of the Divide also comprises designated roadless areas, which are pristine national forest lands covering large intact watersheds that supply drinking water to nearby communities.”

Most of the leases at issue are owned by SG Interests I Ltd.

The county and co-plaintiff Wilderness Workshop say the “unwarranted extensions prevented the leases from expiring and have left the Thompson Divide at risk from oil and gas development that could not otherwise occur.”

The Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge of the extensions, for lack of standing.

The county says the rejection violated the Mineral Leasing Act, which requires that a lease expire unless oil and gas is “produced in paying quantities.” The extensions also violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the leases’ impact on the land, the county says.

The county says the Thompson Divide generates $30 million annually for the local economy from hunting, fishing and ranching — not to mention the clean water.

The county and Wilderness Workshop are represented by Michael Freeman with  EarthJustice in Denver, who did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

They seek a court order declaring the lease extensions “contrary to law,” or a remand to the Department of the Interior’s Board of Land Appeals.

The Bureau of Land Management does not comment on pending litigation.