The place.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

#ThisIsClimateChange, if the Thompson Divide is developed for fossil fuels.  The Thompson Divide is an area of Colorado that is well known for its wilderness qualities, as well as being used for grazing by local ranchers using public permits. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry wants to drill there very intensely.  Community and environmental organizations from national to state to local want the area protected from any drilling. Drilling, nonetheless, is creeping up the mountain from the west.  The impacts to the local ecosystems, local economy, and global climate are calculable, and astronomical. The Thompson Divide Coalition works to negotiate with the companies and state and national political realms to find a way to protect it from any drilling:   Their studies show how much the area already contributes to the economy, for example. Other environmental organizations are also heavily involved.

The Thompson Divide is an area of Colorado roughly west of Highway 133 between the town of Carbondale in the Roaring Fork Valley and near the Town of Marble in mountainous terrain.  Recent news reports show that a new United States Geological Survey has rewritten the USGS estimate for “technically recoverable” fossil fuels located in the Piceance Basin (much of western Colorado) from 1.6 trillion cubic feet to a mean estimate of about 66 trillion.  The extraction industry is renewing their efforts to “recover” that resource.

The Thompson Divide area of the Piceance Basin, according to The Thompson Divide Coalition, a local coalition dedicated to protecting the area from oil and gas drilling and production, hosts around 300 jobs and a $30 million economy between its already packed multiple uses of agriculture, ranching, and recreation.  Most of the area is public land with multiple agencies, four counties, local mountain towns, and a lot of residents, who all want to have a say in how to manage the land.

There is one agency, however, which has mineral leasing authority, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM.  This is the primary agency for leasing and managing subsurface mining in America, and usually is given the authority to do so for other agencies, like the Forest Service, which manages much of Thompson Divide’s surface area.

The mission(s).

The United States Forest Service states their mission is: “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” and proudly quotes their first Chief as stating they are “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

However, in their motto, they state their multiple use legal requirement. “As set forth in law, the [Forest Service] mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people: It includes:

  • Advocating a conservation ethic in promoting the health, productivity, diversity, and beauty of forests and associated lands.
  • Listening to people and responding to their diverse needs in making decisions.
  • Protecting and managing the National Forests and Grasslands so they best demonstrate the sustainable multiple-use management concept.”

The BLM varies little.  Mission: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”  They go on to say, “The BLM’s multiple-use mission, set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, mandates that we manage public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural, and historical resources, many of which are found in the BLM’s 27 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System.”

The BLM has a long and storied history of tending to this multiple use philosophy with vigor.  Unless the land in question has a high-level protection status, for example, a designated wilderness area or national park, or has some cultural or otherwise important characteristic, that land is open season for permits to extract minerals, cut trees, graze cattle, hunt wildlife, and, yes, otherwise recreate on, in, and under it as the case may be.

Out of hundreds of millions of acres of land and subsurface area managed by these two agencies, the Thompson Divide is just about 221,500 acres.  There are 81 parcels of land within that are leased for extraction, but have been delayed in process and protest for years.  In fact, one strategy, of the Thompson Divide Coalition’s, is to simply buy back those leases.  One argument against this, from the industry itself, is that they’d have to buy back the recoverable assets, not just the original permit, which would be an astronomical figure, especially in light of this new USGS study estimate.

The paradox of multiple uses in the same place.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

“Multiple-use” in action. On the left of the horizon, are three elk. On the right are the various tanks, pipes, climate-enhancing collections and exhausts, and workings of an active oil and gas flattened pad, at the end of a road not far from the Thompson Divide. My vehicle, a near-silent Chevy Volt electric vehicle, accessing this road to document these well pads encroaching on Thompson Divide mountains, frightened the elk from their prior grazing near the gate of the well pad. These well pads are accessed frequently by maintenance staff once the initial drilling is done, causing dust, sediment runoff from rain, and noise disturbances to local wildlife like these elk. Once final access is granted to drill within the Thompson Divide area, *if* that approval might be given, then a spider-web of roads would be bulldozed throughout the landscape, with frequent traffic from heavy equipment vehicles and drilling rigs, to regular truck maintenance and monitoring vehicles on a daily basis.  Shotgun shells can be seen as roadside litter.

The paradox, even though the BLM seems to have already made their decision years ago in the sale of the 81 permits, some say illegally, and which are being reconsidered by the BLM, is buried deep in the missions of these government agencies that are charged with, essentially, trying to make everyone happy in their administrative decisions.  Are these herein described “stakeholder” parties implacable?  Are they inherently mutually-exclusive?

Environmental organizations are fighting this battle on two fronts:

  1. This land is your land (and not a corporation’s land), meaning that the land needs to be open to everyone, and not closed for a corporation’s industrial damage.  The leasing of fenced plots of land, on public property, with hazardous materials and heavy traffic on newly created roads that fragment and pollute the landscape are the antithesis of a conservation ethic for which these government agencies stand, in their aforementioned statements, on behalf of the people of the United States.  The industry is inherently hazardous to all of the other functions of the BLM and Forest Service’s management of those public lands, those surrounding the permitted parcels, the waters downstream of them, and the local airshed, all of which are well documented in scientific studies and media reports over decades.
  2. The purpose of the industry’s extraction practices are to “recover” fossil fuels for “consumption” by the public, domestic and foreign marketplaces if they can transport it across our borders.  Essentially, the public, via the BLM’s decisions to lease for this extraction purpose, is sanctioning vast release of carbon dioxide, methane, and other harmful chemicals (locally and globally) to the environment and atmosphere.  The climate damage caused by such releases would contribute to an already worsening condition, which we should not condone or permit.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

This parcel holds oil and gas facilities with a gate labeled “DANGER UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT,” left unattended and open.  The Thompson Divide mountains can be seen in the cloudy background. The noise level from these fans and pressurized pipes was quite loud, not counting the occasional truck passing by on the dirt road, compared to the quietude of these otherwise serene landscapes. These bulldozed roads and facility pads would become multi-decadal industrial operations in an otherwise natural and wild setting, spread over hundreds of square miles.

The industry, however, counters this with economic “jobs” and contributions to society, such as taxes and royalties that somehow are funneled to ever-poor school systems.  So, extracting natural gas and/or oil from public lands such as the Thompson Divide is… for the children, among other things.  While this may be factually true, with deterministic (seemingly angelic) budgeting, the industry’s equivalent of “greenwashing” their economic contributions, or raison d’etre, but the reality is that they are a business with legal requirements of their own to make money for their investors, which is arguably their mission, ad infinitum.

And though, setting aside for the moment their conservation requirements, the BLM does have a mission that includes economic promotion through “productivity,” or creating products from nature’s bounty on, in, and of the lands they manage, there is a finite amount of  managed space.  So the BLM’s mission (and the Forest Service’s) has introduced a paradox, of sorts, similar to Zeno’s Paradox of Place.  Not all “uses” can exist in the same place, and there are not an infinite number of places for them to exist.  Further, it is human hubris to believe that we understand everything about the natural world to state that nature can coexist with every other human “use” of a landscape without repercussion.

This is to say nothing of the natural world that is already in existence there, in those places we want to do the things the BLM manages and permits.  If the BLM is responsible to me, to value my “needs” and “use” of the land in question, in this case the Thompson Divide, then they are mandated to listen and include my input in their decision, equally with an oil and gas company wanting to use the land to drill for their (really, our publicly-owned) “product.”  Nature doesn’t need me to go on existing as it has for eons there, but, in the modern world, since the BLM is mandated to respond only to human input and does not have a mandate to respect any sort of natural inherent rights to exist outside of Congressionally-designated statuses like wilderness areas and National Parks, then nature, in BLM’s eyes, needs my voice.  And since I am but one, and nature is many, having very complex needs, then I, if I proximally understand the needs of nature as a whole in the Thompson Divide, must see fit to organize or be part of a body of people that is organized to speak out for all of nature’s needs in numbers that represent a weight of command that the BLM understands represents a meaningful equivalent of nature’s representative value as weighed against their legal duties to their mission.

Essentially, the BLM is responsible solely to the people’s laws, and interpreting how to best balance the demands of the fairest decisions based on the commands of those laws and the stakeholders who are involved to be representatives for their voice in that law’s interpretation.

The solution.
Thompson Divide, CO (Oil and Gas)

Overlooking the South Thompson Creek area of the Thompson Divide. Several parcels of land permitted to oil and gas companies can be seen from this view, particularly on the left. Further north, just over the mountainous horizon in this image, is the Sunlight Ski Area, the owners of which have publicly opposed oil and gas development proposed around their operations, which, itself, is permitted by the Forest Service. The land seen in the foreground is noticeably heavily grazed by cattle, also permitted by the Forest Service.

The BLM’s Paradox of Place, it seems, is solved by interpretations, arguments, weight of command (comments), and, as Pinchot stated, “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”  I just hope that the weight of the people speaking out to prevent harm done by oil and gas development is represented by enough people to show that nature itself is a valued human resource, for an abundance of reasons and uses, and wins the BLM’s decision and a strong support ruling from the courts with the inevitable challenges it will receive.  Oil and gas resources are finite, however “plentiful” in estimate, and would be exhausted at great cost to the global climate and local ecosystems otherwise.

In “the long run,” many ecosystems can only be damaged once, and they are forever (or on a scale of centuries) altered, destroyed, or otherwise damaged, no matter how much remediation efforts attempt to artificially turn back time to restore that damage.  Certainly the climate emissions genie cannot be put back in the bottle with humanity’s current technology.

I, for one, support the Thompson Divide Coalition‘s, and other organization’s efforts to protect the Thompson Divide and other areas like it.  I hope you’ll join me in sending a chorus of “keep it in the ground” or “let it be,” to the BLM.  They have no choice but to listen to you, and weigh your voice against other, short-term, profit-making interests.


See the full gallery of Thompson Divide images, including some surrounding area drilled lands that are already encroaching on the Thompson Divide’s boundaries.

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