In a meeting with Pitkin County Commissioners last week, U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton said he doesn’t support legislation to protect the Thompson Divide from oil and gas drilling. Instead, Tipton wants negotiations between conservationists and energy companies to continue. For years, the sides have been working on an alternate plan to protect the area. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
The commissioners are hopeful Congressman Tipton will get behind a bill that Colorado Senator Michael Bennett introduced in March. The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act would withdraw un-leased areas, so energy companies couldn’t develop them. And, it would preserve existing development rights for current leaseholders. They could choose to retire the leases, under the proposal. The Thompson Divide is an area that stretches from Sunlight Mountain to McClure Pass and from the Crystal River to Divide Creek.
Commissioner George Newman told Tipton the bill would limit any future oil and gas exploration on the Thompson Divide.
"What I’m asking you today is to follow your Colorado colleagues, which include Senator Bennett, Senator Udall and Governor Hickenlooper, and all the elected officials within the Roaring Fork Valley, to sign on and support Senator Bennett’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal bill."
Tipton says he’d like to solve the problem without getting the Federal government involved because the threat of legislation could derail an alternative solution. He supports an effort by the Thompson Divide Coalition, the group working to protect the area. They’ve offered to pay the oil and gas companies to retire their leases.
"We’ve seen some good communication that’s going on on that and you want to be very cautious, I think, in terms of putting forward legislation that could perhaps interrupt some other conversations that are going on that can achieve the same end, without getting the Federal government involved in the process," he said.
In reality, according to Zane Kessler, Executive Director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, the conversations Tipton supports are contingent on passage of the Bennett legislation. Kessler says money won’t change hands until the Coalition knows the area’s protected permanently.
After Friday’s meeting, Commissioner Newman said he wasn’t satisfied.
"It was a little disappointing that he didn’t come out and recognize the broad base support that this issue has, but rather, he felt that this should not be an issue that needed to be legislated federally," he said.
Without the legislation, Newman says other energy companies could come in and develop in the future.
Tipton says he’d like to see some adjustments made to the Bennett legislation. He says he’s discussed the bill with Bennett and Senator Udall.
"We’d like to be able to see an amiable resolution on this."
A money trail shows Tipton has close ties with some energy companies with interests in the Thompson Divide. The Post Independent reports, a campaign filing in 2011 shows executives, investors and others affiliated with SG Interests donated more than 10-thousand dollars to Tipton’s campaign.
The Coalition has been working since 2008 to pass the protection act. It’s been up twice before the Senate and is now in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. It hasn’t come to a vote.