Late last week, a Federal District Court in Colorado ruled that thousands of acres of oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide properly expired nearly a decade ago. This is just one of many leasing related battles that Wilderness Workshop (WW) and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) have engaged in to protect the Divide over the years. The ruling confirms that more than 2,700 acres of oil and gas leases in the Divide no longer exist.
The Thompson Divide is a complex of inventoried roadless areas on the White River National Forest that provides important habitat, unique opportunities for hunting and backcountry recreation, and water sources that sustain local communities and local agriculture. Ranchers rely on grazing allotments in the area and have led community efforts to protect the Thompson Divide from oil and gas development for many years.
In the early 2000s, WW identified thousands of acres of oil and gas leases in the East Willow area of the Thompson Divide that should have expired according to federal regulations, but the leaseholder was attempting to hold on to them through illegal extensions which were being rubber-stamped by the BLM.
“This became a priority issue for us because these public lands deserve protection. They provide critical wildlife habitat and grazing allotments, as well as domestic water for local communities and extraordinary opportunities for hunting and backcountry recreation. The existence of these leases made it impossible to achieve meaningful protection for the area. And the operator was clearly manipulating agency regulations to hold the leases without drilling.” said Peter Hart with Wilderness Workshop.
Eventually, in response to public accountability efforts and the leaseholder’s own mismanagement, the BLM finally confirmed that the leases had expired. At that point the operator began filing administrative and legal challenges trying to pin blame for the expiration on agency officials. The operator’s lawsuit against the BLM was brought by Mountain States Legal Foundation, the law firm that embattled BLM Chief, William Perry Pendley long led. WW and WELC intervened in the lawsuit to support the proper expiration of these leases and ensure the leases weren’t improperly reinstated in the Thompson Divide.
This is an important victory for the Thompson Divide, and for public lands across the west that are often threatened by illegal speculation practices. Oil and gas companies frequently exploit agency regulations, including loopholes created by BLM’s suspension and unitization regulations, to hold interests on public lands without incurring the expense of development—and sometimes without paying rentals or royalties to the federal treasury. Speculating on public land oil and gas leases is an unlawful practice, and the ruling sets an important precedent that could have broad ripple effects while also sending a strong message to holders of federal oil and gas leases that failed attempts to speculate on leases cannot be pinned on the BLM.
“By routinely rubber-stamping oil and gas lease suspensions, the Bureau of Land Management is rewarding unlawful speculation while also denying the public access to public lands and the opportunity to put these lands to other uses,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney with Western Environmental Law Center. “This practice can critically impact special places like the Thompson Divide, but when you consider the almost 13 million acres of non-producing oil and gas leases across the West you can begin to understand the scale of this problem.”