Last week the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Utah Representative Rob Bishop, sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), demanding that the agency reconsider a proposed decision to cancel several oil and gas leases in Colorado’s bucolic Thompson Divide. Given Rep. Bishop’s close ties to the oil and gas industry, it’s no surprise that his letter mirrors one sent by a trio of oil and gas lobbying groups less than two weeks before.
At issue is the Thompson Divide, a scenic region in western Colorado rich in hunting, fishing, ranching and recreation opportunities. Oil and gas interests have pushed to drill in the area, while a broad coalition of local farmers, ranchers, conservationists and businesses have pushed to preserve the landscape and their way of life.
More than a decade ago, the BLM illegally issued 65 leases to drill for oil and gas on public lands in the area. After working for years to resolve its mistake, BLM reopened its environmental analysis of those leases and recently proposed a compromise plan to cancel 25 leases in the region, while allowing 40 to remain. None of the leases proposed to be canceled had been drilled and all had been on the books for longer than the 10-year period for which they had originally been issued.
While local elected officials and businesses have strongly supported BLM’s proposal, the oil and gas industry has flexed its political muscles in attempt to advance drilling in the region. On June 17, the Western Energy Alliance, Colorado Oil & Gas Association and West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association sent a letter to the BLM demanding the agency reconsider its decision, citing a study from the U.S. Geological Survey which found higher reserves of natural gas in the region.
Now Representative Rob Bishop appears to be taking marching orders from the industry, firing off a letter to the BLM echoing the oil and gas industry’s arguments based on the USGS study. In recent years Representative Bishop has taken hundreds of thousands from the energy industry, including $7,500 from the Western Energy Alliance over the last two election cycles. Members of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association also donated heavily to Rep. Bishop in the 2014 election cycle, including Anadarko Petroleum ($5,000), BP ($5,000), Chesapeake Energy ($2,500), Chevron ($9,000), ConocoPhillips ($2,000), Halliburton ($2,000) and Marathon Oil ($2,500). In the current campaign cycle, Representative Bishop has raised nearly $110,000 from the oil and gas industry, nearly double the amount of his second ranked industry, casinos and gambling interests.
Unfortunately Representative Bishop isn’t the only politician wading into the Thompson Divide debate seemingly at the behest of the oil and gas industry. In April, Colorado Representative Scott Tipton offered a draft bill, written by his largest campaign donor Texas oil and gas company SG Interests, giving oil and gas companies, specifically SG Interests, a sweetheart deal to trade out leases in the Thompson Divide for leases elsewhere in Colorado.
But Representatives Bishop and Tipton are missing the broader point. It’s not that drilling for natural gas shouldn’t happen anywhere, it’s that it shouldn’t happen in the Thompson Divide. The USGS study found that the Piceance Basin—a massive land area in Western Colorado that includes the Thompson Divide—holds 40 times more shale oil and gas than previously estimated. Much of the Piceance Basin is currently leased for oil and gas development and even more is available for leasing in the future.
That doesn’t mean, however, it’s good policy to lease every square inch of Western Colorado. We also need to ensure we’re protecting some of Colorado’s most majestic lands; the Thompson Divide undeniable falls into that category.