Five Facts to Set Congressman Scott Tipton Straight on the Thompson Divide

Feb 1, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

Colorado’s Thompson Divide is classic Rocky Mountain beauty, renowned for its remoteness, recreational opportunities, and big game. But in recent years there has been a showdown between the oil and gas drillers interested in exploring the Thompson Divide and the region’s residents whose livelihoods could be threatened by development.

At issue are 65 oil and gas leases that the Bureau of Land Management illegally issued to oil companies over a decade ago. The agency has been working for years to resolve its mistake and has reopened its environmental analysis. The BLM is considering a solution, which may include cancelling a few dozen of the improperly-issued leases that are incompatible with other economically important activities within the Thompson Divide.

Throughout this bitter, years-long fight, plenty of misinformation has been spread. And no one is more complicit in spreading mistruths than Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO), who has recently been on the warpath fighting against even the most reasonable protections for the region. As he stated recently in a speech on the House floor: “The BLM succumbed to political pressure from environmental extremists.”

As the BLM nears its final decision on the future of the Thompson Divide, here are five facts to set Rep. Tipton straight and encourage him to support his constituents, not his major political donors.

Fact 1: Local elected officials, Republicans, and Democrats support the BLM’s decision

The BLM’s proposal to cancel 25 of the 65 leases, either in part or in full, has received widespread support from local governments and elected officials in the surrounding communities—including bipartisan support from the Chairs of the Garfield and Pitkin County Commissions. Permanently protecting the Thompson Divide is also widely supported by a broad cross-section of Rep. Tipton’s constituents, including businesses, local towns and cities, hunters and anglers, and conservation groups.

So why is Rep. Tipton immune to pressure from the very people who gain their livelihoods from the Thompson Divide? The answer may come down to campaign contributions.

Rep. Tipton’s largest campaign contributor over the course of his career is SG Interests, one of the companies with leases at stake in the Thompson Divide. SG Interests even bankrolled a super PAC—Colorado Future Fund—to help Rep. Tipton’s 2012 reelection. It’s fair to say that Rep. Tipton owes a debt of gratitude to SG Interests for the financial support the company has provided throughout his political career.

As he’s doing the bidding for his major campaign donor, however, frustration is growing among his constituents. Writing in a local paper, Randy Melton, a rancher, outfitter, and Army veteran pronounced:

Mr. Tipton downright ignored our local concerns, and then claimed that folks working to protect these lands are just a bunch of ‘environmental extremists.’ For some reason, I don’t think he’s been paying attention‚ĶNow, I’m no tree-hugger, and you can safely wager that I don’t vote for Democrats. But I am firm in my belief that the greatest resource in the Thompson Divide is found on its surface—not underneath it.

Fact 2: What’s happening in the Thompson Divide is not precedent-setting

In his speech on the House floor, Rep. Tipton claimed the BLM is setting “a disturbing precedent” in the Thompson Divide, but in reality there’s nothing disturbing or precedent-setting about what’s occurring there.

Currently, the BLM is in the process of completing a “curative environmental analysis” for the leased area to determine how best to proceed. This means that the agency is going back to fix problems with its original analysis of the leases. Based on what it finds, the agency could decide to make no changes to the leases within the Thompson Divide or it could decide to amend or cancel some of them.

These curative environmental analyses happen with some frequency. Sometimes the BLM decides to amend the terms of the leases and sometimes the BLM decides to take no action. For example, in 2004 a court ruled that oil leases in Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument were not in compliance with the law. The BLM put three leases on hold while it completed a curative environmental analysis (see page 2 for explanation). The same thing happened on Colorado’s Roan Plateau. And it has happened on numerous other occasions.

There’s also precedent for the BLM to cancel leases outright. In fact, the BLM has already cancelled all or portions of seven leases issued illegally within the Thompson Divide.

Fact 3: The BLM is proposing to cancel only the most speculative leases

The 25 leases that the BLM is proposing to cancel are the most speculative and unlikely to produce significant oil or natural gas. None of the leases have been drilled and they have all been on the books for longer than the 10-year terms for which they were granted.

Many of the Thompson Divide leases were issued for just $2.00 per acre (the minimum a lease can sell for on U.S. public lands), which is an indicator of a lease’s development potential. In fact, a 2014 assessment conducted by an independent petroleum engineer found:

Little to no economic viability for the drilling of oil or gas wells on the leases within the Thompson Divide Area. With the enormous infrastructure capital costs required, in conjunction with low potential reserve numbers, little value can be assigned to these leases.

It’s also important to note that these 25 leases are the ones that have the most direct conflicts with other important economic uses within the Thompson Divide, like hunting, ranching, and recreation. The remaining 40 leases at issue—which also have the best prospect for production—will remain intact for future development.

But these facts haven’t stopped Rep. Tipton and his oil industry supporters from claiming that the BLM’s proposal would stifle drilling and development, which is precisely what happened in a recent meeting with the Mesa County Commissioners.

Fact 4: Industry and local residents want this controversy resolved quickly

In his recent speech, Rep. Tipton accused the BLM of trying to “ramrod through a decision” on the Thompson Divide.

But the reality is that most everybody involved in the disputed leases within the Thompson Divide want the issue resolved as quickly as possible. The BLM and stakeholders have been working diligently and deliberately for the better part of a decade to resolve these leases.

Even oil companies with a stake in the BLM’s decision have requested a quick resolution. Writing to the BLM in 2014, Encana Corp.—one of the companies previously involved in the Thompson Divide—urged the BLM “to complete its new environmental analysis as quickly as possible.”

Fact 5: A lease is a form of property, but not one with unlimited rights

Rep. Tipton argued that the BLM’s actions in the Thompson Divide are an abuse “of private property rights by the federal government.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees with the Congressman’s interpretation, writing in a 1963 decision:

A mineral lease does not give the lessee anything approaching the full ownership of a fee patentee, nor does it convey an unencumbered estate in the minerals. Since the Secretary’s connection with the land continues to subsist, he should have the power, in a proper case, to correct his own errors.

American taxpayers own the oil and gas underlying the Thompson Divide. The BLM leases oil and gas resources to private companies, and in return companies are expected to pay American’s rent on the lease and royalties on any oil or gas produced. While an oil lease is a form of property, it is not one with unlimited rights.

Put plainly, the BLM and its bosses—the Secretary of the Interior and the American taxpayers—maintain ownership over oil and gas resources lying under U.S. public lands. If an oil lease is issued improperly, then it is proper to correct errors, which could mean modifying lease terms or cancelling a lease outright.

Photo Credit: Dom Smith, Thompson Divide Coalition