Settlement talks fail, environmental groups pursuing their claim that a BLM management plan for the area is illegal
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The fate of Northwest Colorado’s Roan Plateau is back in the hands of a federal judge after a year-long series of settlement talks about an oil and gas drilling plan ended in deadlock.
The Roan Plateau, north of Rifle, is recognized as a biological hotspot for species diversity, including pure strains of native trout, rare plants and old-growth Douglas fir. It’s also a hotspot for natural gas, and a drilling plan approved under the Bush administration could result in thousands of new wells being drilled on the Plateau.
Conservation groups have spearheaded a fierce campaign to protect the plateau from industrial development, including a lawsuit that challenged the Bureau of Land Management-approved drilling plan, as well as the leases that have already been issued. The plan has been widely viewed as a sweetheart deal for former Vice President Dick Cheney‘s energy cronies.
In any case, there’s big money at stake. The BLM said in 2008 that the lease sales, covering 54,000 acres in 31 parcels, was worth $114 million, the highest-grossing lease sale on record for the the agency in the lower 48 states. More details on the lease sales here.
Mike Freeman, an environmental attorney with Earthjustice, said the 2008 plan that opens up the entire plateau for drilling is unacceptable and illegal. The lawsuit alleges that the BLM violated federal environmental laws by failing to look at all the reasonable alternatives. He said the BLM also didn’t fully take into account all the potential drilling that could occur under the plan.
“They made an arbitrary assumption that only 210 wells would be drilled. that allowed them to paint a rosier picture of what would happen,” Freeman said. After the plan was approved, the energy company said it might drill as many as 3.000 wells on and around the Roan, turning the area into an industrial energy development zone.
The judge in the case ordered the stakeholders to try and find a resolution via mediation, but those efforts have failed, according to an Oct. 21 announcement by the environmental groups.
Silt-based BLM spokesman Dave Boyd said he couldn’t comment on the issue since it’s now once again in litigation. Energy company officials have been quoted as saying their drilling operations would be consistent with the agency’s plan for the Roan Plateau, but it’s that very plan that’s at the heart of the challenge.
“For nearly a decade, we have worked side by side with hunters, anglers, town councils, outfitters, and local citizens to safeguard the unique natural values of the Roan Plateau. While the end to the settlement discussions is unfortunate, we are optimistic that the overwhelming public support for the Roan will ultimately prevail in achieving a more balanced future for this cherished landscape,” said Elise Jones, director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Jones and Freeman said there is overwhelming public support for protection of the Roan, with about 98 percent of public comments favoring restrictions on drilling on top of of the plateau.
“The drilling proposed for the Roan Plateau would devastate the elk, mule deer and native trout living there and deal a real blow to the region’s hunting and fishing economy,” said Steve Torbit, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “As long as we protect wildlife habitat, western Colorado’s outdoors economy won’t have to suffer through the boom-and-bust cycles that the energy industry is infamous for.”
The environmental groups make their case for protection of the Roan at this website.
According to previous statements by the BLM, key elements of the Roan Plateau plan include:
· Development on top of the plateau will be confined to existing road corridors, with disturbance limited to approximately 1 percent, or 350 acres on top.
· More than 50 percent – 38,470 acres -—of the planning area is stipulated no-surface occupancy.
· Development on top of the Plateau will be conducted in a staged, ridge-by-ridge approach, with well pads more than .5 miles apart to minimize wildlife habitat fragmentation.
· Leases for the top of the Plateau will require operators to enter into a single federal unit, with consolidation of planning and operations under a single unit operator. This more efficient approach reduces impacts to other natural resources by consolidating infrastructure and providing for a more orderly, planned development.