Sen. Udall and Sen. Bennet advocate for stakeholder process that may lead to a buy-out of mineral rights
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — As pressure to drill new oil and gas wells in southern Colorado mounts, community groups in the San Luis Valley are hoping that they can protect the largest federal wildlife refuge in the state from potential energy development impacts with a buyout of the subsurface mineral rights.
That process may have taken a step forward this week as Sen. Mark Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet wrote a letter to Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to engage in the process on behalf several citizens groups and the Saguache County Commissioners.
Udall and Bennet requested a stakeholder meeting to try and find common ground on a solution that balances the need to protect the 92,000-acre Baca National Wildlife Refuge while fully respecting the property rights of Lexam Explorations, the company that owns the mineral rights.
Lexam announced plans to explore for oil and natural gas beneath the Refuge in 2006. Community opposition led to a lawsuit that ended in a settlement in 2010, followed by a subsequent Finding of No Significant Impact in the environmental assessment conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2011.
“We fully respect that Lexam Explorations (U.S.A), Inc. and its shareholders have absolute property rights free of government interference on the Baca NWR. However, in this instance, key parties have stepped forward to work toward an amicable solution for all stakeholders with regards to the controversy over new drilling,” the senators wrote. “We are requesting a meeting with you to discuss this important issue, so that we might consider all possible options that would be helpful to the process.”
Udall and Bennet believe that responsible development of natural gas in Colorado can be an important contribution to our national energy strategy, but that contribution must be weighed against the concerns of local communities about conserving the wild areas in their backyards that would be affected by drilling. The senators think a middle ground is possible that balances Lexam’s rights to exploration and conserving the refuge for future generations, and a meeting involving all stakeholders will allow them to find that place.
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Director Dan Ashe:
We have been asked by the Saguache County Board of County Commissioners, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition, and the Crestone Spiritual Alliance in southern Colorado to engage in the stakeholder process currently underway to explore the buyout of mineral rights underneath the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). We are requesting a meeting with you to discuss this important issue, so that we might consider all possible options that would be helpful to the process.
At this time, Lexam Exploration (U.S.A), Inc., a Colorado corporation and the holder of the mineral rights in question, does not have any pending applications for permits to drill on the Baca NWR. Furthermore, we understand that Lexam is willing to engage in discussions regarding the sale of their mineral rights to the area. As a result, community groups believe they have a window of opportunity to pursue a mineral rights buyout and retirement strategy to protect the Refuge from any future drilling activity.
As you may know, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Colorado is our state’s newest and largest wildlife refuge, with an approved acquisition boundary of over 92,500 acres, including nearly 20,000 acres of irrigated and playa wetlands. When this area was transferred to the federal government, the mineral estate was severed from the surface estate and was not included in the transaction. In May 2006, Lexam announced its intent to explore for oil and natural gas beneath the Refuge. However, stemming from community opposition, a period of litigation ensued. This litigation culminated in a settlement in September 2010, followed by a subsequent Finding of No Significant Impact in the Environmental Assessment conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2011.
We fully respect that Lexam Explorations (U.S.A), Inc. and its shareholders have absolute property rights free of government interference on the Baca NWR. However, in this instance, key parties have stepped forward to work toward an amicable solution for all stakeholders with regards to the controversy over new drilling. Recognizing though that these negotiations will take time to reach a desired outcome for all parties, we ask that you meet with our staff, Lexam, and community stakeholders as soon as possible to discuss possible options that balance the need to protect the Refuge as a valuable conservation site and to uphold Lexam’s private property rights to develop the area.
Thank you very much for your consideration of this important issue. We look forward to hearing from you.
Mark Udall and Michael F. Bennet