Colorado: More wrangling over the Roan Plateau, as the BLM takes comments for another environmental impact statement

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A view of the Roan Plateau from a NASA satellite.

BLM starts new environmental study for drilling leases in sensitive wildlife area

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — With comments coming in on a revised BLM study for fossil fuel development on Colorado’s Roan Plateau, it’s clear that there’s little common ground between the energy industry and conservation groups.

Hunters, anglers and environmentalists want the federal agency to set strict protections for natural resources, while oil and gas companies say the government needs to get on with opening the area for drilling as required under federal law.

A federal court last year ruled that the 2008 drilling plan didn’t consider conservation-oriented options, and that it didn’t adequately analyze the cumulative air quality impacts of oil and gas drilling. The BLM has acknowledged that developing up to 1,500 wells on the Roan Plateau would permanently alter some areas of high quality fish and wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel stakeholders, represented by the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association also submitted comments, explaining that federal law requires the Roan Plateau to be leased and calling on the BLM to make only the specific supplemental analysis required by the court.

“Rather than indulge demands from environmental plaintiffs seeking still another delay for delay’s sake, the BLM should narrowly supplement its analysis in the specific areas the Judge requested, and get on about the business of allowing oil and  gas production on the Roan as Judge Krieger said is required under federal law,” WSCGOGA wrote in its March 29 comment letter.

The fossil fuel industry says that Roan drilling is supported by local West Slope communities and local governments and local businesses, and that opposition to Roan Plateau energy development is funded by big-­dollar,  East  Coast  environmentalists. Delaying drilling puts local communities at risk of having to repay leasing royalties that have already been disbursed by the government.

The association charges that the issue of leases atop the plateau has become hyper-politicized, and the BLM should separate analysis of the valley leases at the base of the plateau from the analysis for the leases on the plateau. Since the valley leases are right next to existing wells already in production, that would enable a speedier development of the valley leases to the economic gain of nearby communities, according to the comment letter.

A coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups has offered a detailed conservation alternative that would require companies to access gas atop the Roan from private land on the plateau’s southern edge. Under the proposal, no new well pads, roads or infrastructure would be allowed on federal land. The proposal also would prohibit disturbance of the surface in important wildlife habitat and migration corridors at the base of the plateau. According to the groups, provisions in the earlier plan intended to protect sensitive wildlife areas had built-in waivers that could have opened the land to construction.

Specifically, comments from the conservation community itemized the following points:

1. Undisturbed big game winter range at the base of the plateau should not be drilled.

2. New roads, well pads and pipelines should not be constructed on top of the Roan in cutthroat trout drainages, or in other important areas such as lands with wilderness characteristics or critical plant habitat.

3. Big-game migration corridors need to remain intact and undisturbed by drilling.

4. Where drilling is allowed, it should be done using state of the art practices (such as directional drilling and water and waste management technologies) that will protect sensitive trout and wildlife habitat at the base and top of the plateau, as well as other resources.

5. To protect significant wildlife, fisheries, habitat and other resources, the BLM should retain the option of cancelling the leases.

Oil and gas companies said the BLM should reverse its decision to do yet another environmental study for the top of the plateau, calling the process another “egregious example of wasted resources, since this latest round of full-­blown NEPA  analysis, layered on top of more than a decade of existing analysis, is simply not required.” Industry claims the citizens alternative is technically infeasible, and that it would constitute a “functional taking” of leaseholder rights.

Drilling on the Road should be allowed to proceed based on unequivocal language in a federal law enacted during the Clinton administration:

“Beginning on November 18, 1997, or as soon thereafter as practicable, the Secretary of the Interior shall enter into leases with one or more private entities for the purpose of exploration for, and development and production of, petroleum … located on or in public domain lands in {NOSR 1 and NOSR 3}.”

“In point of fact, more delay and new reams of analysis will not change certain basi realities:  Western Colorado needs jobs and energy production from the Roan. The previous EIS approved by the Bureau of Land Management is one of the most  environmentally-­stringent plans approved  in the history of public lands energy exploration, and no amount of additional  concession, modification or restriction will ever satisfy the demands of drilling opponents,” WSCOGA wrote in its comment letter.

Conservation groups claim the land atop the Roan has wilderness values comparable to other lands protected as part of the National Park system.

The Roan’s remote backcountry, fish and wildlife habitat become more critical as the BLM develops management plans that project thousands of new oil and gas wells in the surrounding Piceance Basin, said Michael Saul, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

“The proposals detailed by the conservation community allow companies access to significant natural gas deposits without sacrificing important habitats that offer their own key economic contributions through hunting, fishing and recreation,” Saul said, explaining that advances in drilling technology make it possible for oil and gas companies to access the resource with less disturbance to natural resources.

“Just over the last 10 years in Colorado, we’ve seen the industry reach farther and farther using horizontal and directional drilling,’’ said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman. “There’s no reason to believe those advances won’t continue during the 20-year life of this new plan.’’

The Roan Plateau is in the heart of what’s been called Colorado’s mule-deer factory,” said Suzanne O’Neill, director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. “A big question is how much longer the Piceance Basin can hold onto that distinction in light of all the drilling that’s already taken place …  Add to that the alarming decline in mule deer numbers that’s been occurring in northwest Colorado and that makes the Roan, with its valuable fish and wildlife habitat, all the more crucial to maintaining the area’s rich biological diversity,” Jones said.

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3 Responses

  1. [...] Colorado: More wrangling over the Roan Plateau, as the BLM takes comments for another environmental … [...]

  2. Didn’t every local government and hundreds of local citizens oppose drilling on the plateau? What is the economic impact of long term sustainable tourism jobs, which can be passed down generation to generation vs short term extraction jobs for the local community?
    The industry brags about their technology, but won’t use it to protect natural landmark and local interests/economy.

    • I don’t think “every local government” formally opposed drilling on the Roan. There is a lot of support for energy development on the West Slope, along with heightened concern over impacts and a desire to see the development well regulated.

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