Lawsuit filed over Roan Plateau leases |

Lawsuit filed over Roan Plateau leases

DENVER ” A coalition of 10 environmental groups has filed a lawsuit seeking to block a sale next month of oil and gas leases on the Roan Plateau, an area with pristine backcountry that nearby residents, Gov. Bill Ritter and others hope to protect.

The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Denver asks a judge to issue an injunction to stop the Bureau of Land Management from offering the leases in an Aug. 14 auction.

About 55,186 acres of public land on the plateau, about 180 miles west of Denver, are up for lease. Of those, roughly 34,000 acres are on top of the plateau, an area considered particularly sensitive by some because of the wildlife habitat, including streams that are home to genetically pure native cutthroat trout dating to the last ice age.

Environmentalists call it an “anchor” for mule deer and elk that spend summers there before venturing out during the winter.

Hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts have opposed the BLM’s management plan, which the lawsuit said could result in more than 3,000 wells on the plateau’s top. Ritter’s administration developed an alternate plan that recommended more restrictions on drilling and phasing in leases rather than offering them all at once.

The lawsuit contends the BLM failed to fully consider alternatives or environmental impacts of its drilling and leasing plan.

“The public’s call for an ecologically sensitive approach to development of the Roan Plateau fell on deaf ears,” the lawsuit said.

A BLM spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Oil and gas industry group Americans for American Energy said there’s enough natural gas in the plateau to heat more than 4 million homes for 25 years and provide $1 billion in tax revenue.

“The public is being sold on this idea that if we slow down oil and gas development, that would allow renewable energy to take hold and we would soon wake up to this rosy renewable energy future,” said Ken Wonstolen, legal counsel for industry group the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “That totally ignores the scale of our energy economy and the time it would take to displace” fossil fuels.

Steve Torbit of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the groups suing the BLM, said the area has survived the effects of humans because it was protected by its designation as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve. A 1997 law transferring that land from the Department of Energy to the Interior Department directed that the area’s energy resources be developed, BLM officials have said.

Federal officials have said the management plan opening some of the public land to leasing was seven years in the making and is one of the most restrictive ever approved by the BLM.

“It’s an area that has not felt the impact of 20th and 21st century man,” Torbit said, adding that the federation is not against developing the resources. “When the government decided to open it up for development, we asked for special consideration, creative management and thoughtful balance.

“I don’t think this decision was made in the state office in Denver, I think this decision was made in Washington, D.C.”

Jim Angell, managing attorney for the Colorado Earthjustice office, said the oil and gas industry doesn’t have enough equipment and manpower to develop what is already leased. “What’s the hurry to get all this leased now?” Angell said. “I think that the Bush administration is going to be leaving in a few months has something to do with it.”

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