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Drilling Dispute Near Carbondale Heats Up

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

CARBONDALE, Colo. (AP) – A conservation group worried about gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area is picking up efforts to see a member of Congress try to slow natural gas companies from using federal leases to start drilling.

Members of the Thompson Divide Coalition had meetings scheduled this week with Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, as well as a staffer for Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes the Thompson Divide.

The Coalition is made up of conservationists and cattlemen from the Carbondale area, where natural gas companies hold more than 70 leases on federal land, and are beginning to take steps toward drilling. The group believes gas drilling in the Divide would harm the watershed and ranching operations, and that building roads through the largely roadless forest would disrupt wildlife.

The Thompson Divide area includes more than 220,000 acres of public land between Carbondale and McClure Pass.

Coalition members plan to meet with Bennet before the senator holds a public town hall Monday afternoon.

On Tuesday, the Divide Coalition will be in Aspen, meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners and a staffer from Rep. Scott Tipton’s office.

The Aspen Daily News reports that Tipton and Bennet began collaborating in May on possible legislative action addressing the Thompson Divide conflict.

Dorothea Farris, Thompson Divide Coalition board member and former Pitkin County commissioner, said she and the coalition are mostly waiting on the congressional leaders to take some action.

“We are moving forward at the glacial pace of Congress,” she said. “And their staffs are working together.”

A Tipton spokesman said a legislative solution is still far off for the congressman, who continues to urge the gas companies and the conservationists to work together and try to find common ground.

“At the moment he’s of the opinion that the topic needs more work,” said Tipton spokesman Josh Green. “It needs more collaboration among the stakeholders, with the goal of finding a compromise.”

Tipton has not publicly strayed from that neutral territory on the issue since taking office in January.

Former Rep. John Salazar, whom Tipton defeated in a November election, had pledged during his failed re-election campaign last fall to introduce a bill to stop drilling in the Thompson Divide.

The draft legislation he adopted had been written by the Thompson Divide Coalition and endorsed by the county commissioners from Pitkin, Gunnison and Garfield counties. All three fall in Tipton’s congressional district.

“I’m still pushing legislation,” Farris said. “That’s the way we need to go.”

Pitkin County manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday’s meeting is mostly a check-in with the coalition, which is operating with an apparent sense of urgency since the first pre-drilling actions in the divide have occurred this summer.

“It’s just a discussion about the goals of the Thompson Divide Coalition and making sure we’re linked up,” Peacock said of Tuesday’s meeting.

The county commissioners decided to invite a staffer from Tipton’s office to the update earlier this summer. Green said Friday that an aide would be in Aspen for the meeting.

RELATED LINK: savethompsondivide.org

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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