Looking south on Bureau of Land Management land towards Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. (Courtesy of EcoFLight)
EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – The top two Democrats vying to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the 2024 election have very different takes on her ardently pro-drilling battle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Boebert opposes the agency’s pending national conservation rule and its plan for restricting natural gas production on large swaths of land in western Colorado.
Adam Frisch, 56, a former Aspen City Council member who lost to Boebert by just 546 votes in 2022 and leads her in polling and fundraising this year, addressed both looming BLM policy changes, including a resource management plan that would make part of the 3rd Congressional District in Eagle County, near the Colorado River, off limits to gas drilling.
“I know the valley, and so I appreciate all of a sudden there might be some eyes opened because they didn’t really think that Eagle County was a high probability (drilling area),” said Frisch, who met his wife in Vail and lived there for two years in the early aughts. “I don’t know the agreements or squabbles that’ve been going between what’s low, medium and high (probability drilling), but it’s in everyone interest to focus on those high areas first … and hopefully they’re in places that make sense, not just economically, but that can work for the community.”
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The debate over outdoor recreation and conservation of public lands versus oil and gas drilling, mining and other extractive industries is one that’s been going on for decades in the 3rd District, which stretches from Pueblo in the south to Grand Junction out west.
In a September letter to the BLM, Boebert – a 36-year-old Silt Republican with deep ties to the oil and gas industry – wrote that the proposed BLM resource management plan for western Colorado is using dated data and that “medium-potential” drilling areas near the confluence of the Eagle and Colorado rivers in western Eagle County might turn out to be “high potential.”
Some of the alternatives in the proposed Colorado-specific BLM resource management plan would prohibit new oil and gas leasing in the area, which is part of the southwestern corner of Eagle County in Boebert’s sprawling 27-county district. The federal agency that oversees more than 245 million acres of federal land nationwide, including 8.3 million in Colorado, is separately considering a new Public Lands Rule that would put conservation on a level playing field with leases for oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing and outdoor recreation.
Boebert, who opposes that proposal as well, says her previous oil and gas field work makes her uniquely qualified to comment on these issues. “We need to stop buying oil and gas from Russia, stop begging (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), Venezuela, and even Iran to produce energy for us, and start producing more energy responsibly in America,” Boebert told the Vail Daily.
In fact, President Joe Biden last year issued an executive order banning the U.S. import of Russian oil, liquified natural gas and coal in the wake of the Ukraine invasion that has roiled global energy markets.
But Frisch agrees with Boebert that the Biden administration has hampered domestic energy production, even though U.S. oil experts recently set a new record.
“While we are producing more energy domestically than we ever have in the past, which is great, you still have an administration that has been begging Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and Iran to turn on the spigots because they’re concerned about high energy prices across the country,” said Frisch, who worked for 12 years in the financial markets, eight of them as a trader.
“I understand how some of the markets work, so, without a doubt, yes, all these commodities, natural gas, oil, are traded and … there’s different types of oil,” Frisch said. “Oil’s not just oil. Some oil we actually have to produce and ship out, and some oil we have to actually import.”
U.S. exports of natural gas – the primary fossil fuel product on Colorado’s Western Slope – hit all-time highs in the first half of 2023.
“To me, it makes sense — for the economics of our district but also for the global climate — we’re better off producing (gas) here because the rules and regulations in our country, let alone in Colorado, are much higher standards than they are (in the Middle East),” Frisch said.
Boebert, in an email statement to Colorado Newsline from press secretary Anthony Fakhoury, echoed that sentiment: “It is wrong to eliminate quality, well-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry or burden Americans with increased gas prices when we can generate the cleanest energy in the world right here in the 3rd District. We must restore American energy dominance so we are less reliant on foreign nations to meet our energy demands.”
Decreased economic reliance on gas drilling
Grand Junction Mayor Anna Stout, 39, who’s also seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Boebert, lauds the BLM Public Lands Rule and argues outdoor recreation is a critical, sustainable economic driver for the Western Slope outside of its many famous ski towns.
“Considering conservation as valid a use will help the BLM protect and maintain its multiple-use mandate. This is law, and it actually achieves balance,” Stout said in an interview. “This elevates conservation, and that’s really important because this is a much-needed reset, or rebalancing, of how the BLM does business — not just here, but nationally. In western Colorado especially, (conservation is) a major contributor for us to tourism, to outdoor recreation. So conservation is not a bad guy in this, and it’s not an either-or in the way they’ve done (the rule).”
Environmental groups that sued over the specific resource management plan for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley and Grand Junction field offices, first promulgated in 2015, argued the plan lacked sufficient climate and greenhouse gas analysis. That led to two new alternatives in a supplemental environmental impact statement the groups say provides more robust protections.
“There are a lot of communities across Western Colorado that are consciously working to reduce reliance on the boom-and-bust cycles of extractive and unsustainable fossil fuel development,” said Erin Riccio, advocacy director for Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale. “And these new alternatives under consideration in that BLM plan just really do a better job balancing oil and gas with other important values on our public land.”
Both the new BLM Public Lands Rule and the resource management plan are now closed for public comment but still being reviewed for final decisions. Wilderness Workshop points to a recent study from Colorado Mesa University showing decreased economic reliance on gas drilling and mining in Mesa and Garfield counties — Eagle County’s neighbors to the west.
In June, Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry testified on the BLM Public Lands Rule before the House Natural Resources Committee, saying in an interview later that, “Conservation values are generally what are most important to us in a recreation economy. Creating land management plans based only on oil and gas, timber, extraction often doesn’t work well for Eagle County.”
The city and the ranchers
Scientists say Colorado’s Western Slope, nearly all of which is in Boebert’s district, is warming faster than the rest of the state and nation due to human-caused climate change and the ongoing burning of fossil fuels. That stepped-up rate of warming is putting pressure on Colorado’s ski areas and resort communities, many of which are in the 3rd District.
Frisch in a column last month in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel called the proposed rule on conservation an attack on the ranchers of western Colorado who lease BLM lands for grazing, and he argued “this new rule would seriously harm western Colorado’s economy and way of life.”
Stout says she understands the ranching world because the city of Grand Junction owns land that it leases to ranchers as part of maintaining the city’s water rights — a mutually beneficial relationship for the city and the ranchers, whom she calls “great stewards of the land.”
“So, I understand the dynamics of the conflict between outdoor rec and conservationists and ranchers and energy extraction,” Stout said. “(The proposed new rule) is acknowledging that when we have multiple interests, there’s a balance that has to be struck. Grazing is a part of our ecosystem; it’s important that we have grazing. And when we get to the point that we’ve overgrazed, it’s important that we have time for a reset. That’s not to say that grazing will be prohibited or that ranchers will be precluded from using that land forever.”
Frisch called the proposed new conservation rule a slap in the face to ranchers and was sharply critical of the way BLM officials took public comment on the rule, mainly meeting in large cities far from the grazing leases.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people, and I support them, that they thought that was a slap in the face to them because these one-, two-, three-, four-, five-generation farmers and ranchers, in their mind, and I support them, have been conserving the land for generations and it’s their livelihood,” Frisch said.
He added that he is conflicted on Boebert’s relentless efforts to permanently relocate the massive federal agency’s national headquarters to Grand Junction. He recognizes the need for administrators to be close to the seat of power in D.C. but also wants more “boots on the ground” in the district.
“What needs to happen, no matter where the headquarters is, is the people out of D.C. need to get out of their offices and actually visit the land that they are in charge of protecting and supporting and actually be willing to sit down with people in the ZIP codes that they’re overseeing and not just pop into some airport business meeting room or some kind of office in a high rise in Denver and then fly home,” Frisch said.
Asked if Boebert lacks credibility on oil and gas drilling because of her close ties to the industry, Frisch said, “I don’t think the representative is qualified on anything, and she’s shown that since she got sworn into office in the start of 2021, and more and more people are realizing that. I appreciate she worked in the industry at some point, and to me, it’s certainly not a conflict of interest to have worked in the industry then go up into Congress.”
Frisch declined to comment on the details of Boebert’s failure to disclose her ex-husband’s consulting work for an oil and gas company in 2021, except to say, “It’s important to make sure that everyone’s financial disclosure forms are proper and transparent, especially if it happens to be in an industry of which your spouse might be employed. That’s obviously smells kind of funny.”
Stout, a bilingual educator and translator who’s worked for years in the nonprofit sector, said of Boebert: “Every politician, every elected official, has an ethical responsibility to declare any conflicts, potential conflicts, or perceived conflicts. So it is her responsibility to make sure that if she has conflicts, that those are being disclosed.”
The campaign for Jeff Hurd, a Grand Junction lawyer and businessman who’s challenging Boebert for the Republican nomination in 3rd District, did not respond to a phone call and multiple email requests for comment for this story.
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