Grassroots groups near Aspen, Telluride fight for outdoor recreation over uranium mining, gas drilling

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJuly 20, 2011
Natural resource extraction near two of Colorado's most historic and scenic ski towns -- Aspen and Telluride -- is being bitterly contested by grassroots conservation groups fighting to stave off mining and drilling in favor of outdoor recreation and tourism.

The Pitkin County commissioners have rekindled the idea of taking a much tougher regulatory stance on natural gas drilling in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale, according to the Aspen Times.

The commissioners want to augment certain state requirements by demanding more financial security for environmental cleanup measures in the event of spills or leaks associated with natural gas production. A year ago, the board of commissioners backed off in its review of tough new regulations because of the potential for litigation.

That scenario still seems likely given that the company holding the majority of oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area, Houston-based SG Interests, is currently suing Gunnison County over its regulations.

A community activist group called the Thompson Divide Coalition has been pushing to see most of the federal lands in the area – more than 220,000 acres – excluded from future oil and gas development.

Pitkin County in the past has tried to get the federal government to sign onto an overall drilling ban in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, arguing the essentially industrial process is incompatible with a tourism and resort-based economy.

Thompson Divide.

“[The tougher county regulations] just kind of got stalled out,” Cindy Houben, head of the county's Community Development Department, told the Times. “It's hard to make a move in the direction we want to make a move in without having controversy. At some point, we just need to move forward.”

SG Interests has filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management to use its 16 leases in the area. A Denver attorney for SG said of the proposed new regulations: “Pitkin County's proposed ordinance is perhaps the most far-reaching, if not to say over-reaching, example of local oil and gas regulations that I have seen.”

Near Telluride, the fight is over uranium mining.

A Canadian company hoping to revive the long-dormant uranium mining hotbed of southwestern Colorado is touting an economic report prepared for Montrose County showing world uranium demand is expected to double in the coming year, according to the Telluride Daily Planet.

But opponents of Energy Fuels' proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill – what would be the nation's first new processing facility in nearly three decades if it's ever built – don't put much stock in the new economic report produced for Montrose County by Economic & Planning Systems, Inc.

“A report commissioned by the promoter of an unfunded uranium mill and a county who's trying to tie up water rights by claiming the need for three uranium mills — it doesn't provide much basis to lend credibility,” Energy Minerals Law Center attorney Travis Stills told the Daily Planet. “It certainly will be read as a proponent's document.”

EPS is a national consulting firm with offices in Denver, Sacramento and Berkeley, Calif.

“World uranium demand is expected to double, assuming the planned and proposed reactors are built. Uranium production in the United States, including production in Montrose County, will increase to satisfy future levels of demand and fill the gap from dwindling stockpiles,” the EPS report reads. “The Four Corners Region (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona) includes the Uravan Mineral Belt, one of the richest uranium deposits in the United States. The region is estimated to contain between 31 percent and 36 percent of the nation's uranium resource.”

Energy Fuels President and CEO Steve Antony sent out a press release touting the EPS findings: “This report highlights that there is little milling capacity to bring that resource to market. These factors, combined with uranium demand projections, give further justification for the construction of the Piñon Ridge Mill.”

But environmental groups challenging the mill in court say a revival of the area's uranium mining industry would seriously impact the tourism and outdoor recreation economy that has become a way of life for many people in the area since the last uranium boom tailed off in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They also argue Colorado should be very cautious in the wake of past cleanup disasters in the area and the recent nuclear power scare in Japan.

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