Protection clearly at issue after BLM decision on Roan |

Protection clearly at issue after BLM decision on Roan

Summit County, CO Colorado

DENVER ” A decision Friday authorizing up to 1,570 new natural gas wells on the Roan Plateau didn’t seem to please any of the groups that value the western Colorado landmark for its different qualities ” energy reserves, abundant wildlife, pristine backcountry.

Industry groups welcomed approval of the plan by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management after about seven years of looking at leasing the federal land on the plateau that rises about 3,000 feet above the high desert floor dissected by the Colorado River.

But provisions intended to minimize the environmental impacts make it “probably one of the most restrictive plans ever developed,” said Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for some companies to be able to justify bidding on the projects,” Schnacke said.

Keith Goddard, who guides hunters and anglers up and down the plateau about 180 miles west of Denver, doesn’t think the plan will protect clear waters that are home to a genetically important strain of cutthroat trout or habitat vital for the area’s large deer and elk herds.

“I don’t care what the companies think. This is our land, not the companies’ land,” Goddard said.

The BLM decision covers about 70 percent of the total management area of 73,602 acres ” federal land on the top and sides of the Roan, which reaches nearly 9,000 feet and stretches out at points into lush, rolling hills, flat spots and dramatic mountain valleys.

A second decision will be issued after a 60-day comment period on areas considered to have critical environmental concerns, or about 30 percent of the federal land. BLM officials said that decision was delayed because the areas weren’t adequately described.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said it would likely be six months at the earliest before any leases are offered.

Drilling has increased around the bottom of the plateau on private and public land as energy development has boomed in the area. Some wells have been drilled on private land on the top, but area communities, conservationists, hunters and anglers have campaigned to keep drilling off public land on top or delay it until technology improves to the point the disturbance is minimal.

Three members of Colorado’s congressional delegation had asked for more time for public review because of changes the BLM made to the final plan. Gov. Bill Ritter requested more time to study the plan because he’s been in office just since January, but said the Interior Department turned him down last month.

“Unfortunately, the BLM’s rush to lease this special area could inhibit my ability to weigh in on this extremely important decision,” Ritter said.

Colorado Congressmen John Salazar and Mark Udall last month asked Congress to delay federal funds for the BLM to oversee Roan Plateau development for a year and to prevent new projects in the meantime. The two Democrats said they could continue to push for a moratorium.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., criticized what he called the BLM’s “misguided direction.”

The senator had asked the BLM to extend the comment period on the final environmental impact statement, issued last September, because the agency revised an option it recommended in an earlier draft plan. He said the public didn’t get a chance to comment on the revision.

The BLM’s preliminary plan proposed deferring drilling until 80 percent of wells below the plateau’s rim were developed, which the agency said could take 16 years. The revision was written after discussions with agencies, including the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which was concerned that delaying work on the top would intensify development at the bottom ” crucial winter range for big game.

The modified recommendation attempts to minimize the impact of development on the top by staging and clustering development so that no more than 1 percent of the plateau’s 34,758 acres would be disturbed at any one time.

Boyd of the BLM said the revision in the final plan fell within the parameters of the potential impacts envisioned in the draft.

“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s one in which everybody was given a seat at the table,” said Jon Bargas, spokesman for the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

Industry groups say the plateau could provide enough natural gas for 4 million homes for the next 20 years. They also say a 1997 law transferring public lands on the Roan Plateau that used to be the Naval Oil Shale Reserve from the Department of Energy to the Interior Department made clear the land should be leased for oil and gas development.

Environmentalists dispute that.

“Roan Plateau was supposed to be managed on Colorado’s terms, not by executive fiat from Washington, D.C.,” said Mike Chiropolos, an attorney with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.

The BLM plan projects up to 13 well pads and 210 wells on top of the Roan. Multiple wells can be drilled from one pad. Wells would be clustered on pads spaced a half-mile apart.

BLM spokesman Vaughn Whatley said the plan specifies that roughly 50 percent of the surface not be disturbed to protect wildlife and habitat.

The gas in those areas could be reached by drilling wells offsite and angling the bit underground.

The problem is the plan allows the BLM to waive, under certain conditions, requirements that the gas be extracted offsite, said Clare Bastable, conservation director of the Colorado Mountain Club.

“We often see that what happens on the ground is that stipulations may be waived when it’s deemed necessary to recover more of the resources,” Bastable said.

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