DENVER – Democratic congressional candidate Sal Pace may have tipped his hand on energy development Monday when he jumped into the fracas over the North Fork Valley oil and gas leases.
Pace fired off a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking for a delay in the Western Slope lease auction until the Bureau of Land Management releases its revised resource management plan, which is expected in 2013.
“The community deserves a current plan that can accurately assess the economic and environmental impacts of increased oil and gas development,” said Pace in the letter.
Pace, a 35-year-old state representative, is challenging Republican Rep. Scott Tipton on a platform that emphasizes balance in energy development. In a campaign statement, he says, “energy production–of nearly every kind–means jobs. We have abundant supplies of natural gas and coal.”
“Producing oil, gas and coal in a responsible manner and expanding our energy portfolio to include renewable sources will help create jobs in the district, protect our economy from global disruptions in the oil market, and promote a cleaner, healthier environment,” says Pace.
But critics say his effort to put the brakes on the leasing of 22 parcels for oil and gas drilling in the struggling Western Slope shows he’s less concerned about energy production than with buffing up his credentials with environmental groups, many of which oppose the auction.
“Given his anti-American energy voting record, this doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Tyler Q. Houlton, president of Compass Colorado, a free-market advocacy group. “This actually shows his true colors as a radical environmentalist.”
Others pointed out that the North Fork Valley doesn’t exactly fall in Pace’s legislative district, given that he represents Pueblo, and chalked up his interest in the issue to political gamesmanship. Halting the North Fork Valley auction has become a cause celebre for several environmental groups, led by Citizens for a Healthy Community.
The anti-drilling organization, chaired by WildEarth Guardians vice-president Robin Smith, has launched a letter-writing campaign to stop the lease sale, providing a template letter on its website. The group is also holding a forum Saturday at Hotchkiss High School, “Understanding the Risks of Oil and Gas Development.”
The letter template states in part, “I support the No Action/No Leasing Alternative that will result in the withdrawal of all 22 parcels and all 30,000 acres in the proposed lease sale.”
Pace spokesman Chad Obermiller called the criticism “absolutely false,” saying “by no stretch would he say he is opposed to drilling in the North Fork.”
“It’s troubling to hear people say we’re anti-industry when we’re really not,” said Obermiller. “Sal’s position on this is that if a decision is going to be made, it should be made with sound, current scientific data.”
He noted that the most recent resource management plan was completed in 1989. Calls to Tipton to ask his position to the North Fork Valley lease sale were not immediately returned.
The North Fork Valley auction is being closely watched in Colorado because it represents the first oil and sale under the Obama administration’s new leasing protocol. Effective Jan. 1, the new rules require an Environmental Assessment [EA] before the lease goes to auction, in addition to conducting an Environmental Impact Statement after the sale.
The administration has framed the new rules as an effort to avoid costly litigation by identifying and addressing environmental concerns before lease sales, instead of dealing with them after the fact in court. In 2011, every energy lease sale on federal land in Colorado was either withdrawn, deferred, delayed and / or litigated, said David Ludlam, West Slope president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
He said supporters of oil and gas development worry that the Environmental Assessment will serve instead as “an additional layer for mischief that wasn’t there before.”
“The stakes of the outcome of this process are the big election politics of the day, and this is ultimately a test case for Secretary Salazar’s onshore leasing reforms,” said Ludlam. “If this gets bogged down in an additional administrative appeals, litigation and further delay when operators propose actual drilling, it’s going to validate concerns that these new regulations are having the opposite effect of what was intended.”
The North Fork Valley, encompassing the towns of Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford, has long housed coal mining and drilling operations, but in recent years the region has seen a jump in population with the growth of wineries and organic farming.
The Delta County Board of County Commissioners supports deferring the lease sale until the revised Resource Management Plan is completed as its first choice, and deferring the sale of 15 of the 22 parcels as its second option.
The BLM issued a preliminary EA March 8 that offered 21 of the 22 nominated parcels while adding protections to limit the impact of drilling to some areas, such as banning pits and cordoning off crucial deer and elk winter ranges.
The agency also issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact,” meaning that the lease sales on “the quality of the human environment are not likely to be highly controversial.”
The comment period on the preliminary EA runs until April 6, with a lease auction tentatively scheduled for Aug. 9.