County asks VP, first lady to help stop drilling

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News,Business

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Pitkin County officials plan to ask Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama for help in preventing a Texas energy company from drilling natural gas wells in western Colorado's Thompson Divide area.

County commissioners are taking out a full-page ad in local newspapers Saturday asking Biden and Obama to take action against drilling in the area, the Aspen Daily News reported (http://bit.ly/WvcUUy ). Biden will visit Snowmass with his family over President's Day weekend, and Obama also is expected to be in the area, though her trip has not yet been confirmed.

"There are right places to drill and wrong places to drill," the ad reads. "No one would, for example, seriously suggest erecting drill rigs in Central Park. We see no exaggeration in saying that Colorado's mountain country is America's Central Park."

Houston-based SG Interests Inc. wants more time to develop natural gas wells in the Thompson Divide, which includes 346 square miles of federal land running from the Sunlight Ski Area to McClure Pass, crossing Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Mesa and Delta counties.

The company has asked the Bureau of Land Management to suspend the expiration date of 16 of its leases in the area. The leases were purchased from the U.S. Forest Service in a 2003 auction, and the company has until May 31 to develop them before they expire.

Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG Interests, wrote in a letter to the BLM that suspending the expiration date would serve conservation interests because it would give the federal government more time to decide whether to allow oil and gas development in the area. It also would give the company more time to work with county officials and conservation groups to address environmental concerns about potential drilling, he said.

But Bill Fales, a rancher and member of the Thompson Divide Coalition, argued that the BLM and taxpayers should not reward SG Interests' delays.

"BLM should afford us the opportunity to provide official comment on any decision that could impact our water, or businesses or our livelihoods," he said.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency is reviewing the company's request and does not know when a decision will be made. The decision to approve or deny a lease suspension request is a BLM administrative action that does not require a formal public comment period.

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Information from: Aspen Daily News, http://www.aspendailynews.com

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