Colorado: Roan Plateau drilling plan back in federal court

Fossil fuel industry frustrated by federal delays

The BLM, conservation groups and the fossil fuel industry are grappling with a development plan for the Roan Plateau in northwest Colorado.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The fossil fuel industry continues to battle over energy development in court, most recently by asking a federal appeals court to overturn a previous lower court ruling that spurred the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider its plan for northwest Colorado’s Roan Plateau.

Conservation groups joined the battle in late April, filing their response to the latest legal challenge, which would “turn back the clock” to Bush-era energy development policies, according to Earthjustice, which is representing community and environmental groups in the case.

At issue is how many wells will be drilled atop the plateau, which is billed by conservation advocates to have high natural resource values. The fight dates back to a development plan approved by the BLM under the Bush administration.

Conservation groups challenged that plan, and in June 2012, Judge Krieger, of the U.S. District Court for Colorado, struck it down and told the agency to consider more different alternatives for managing the Roan.  BLM is complying with that order and began a new environmental review process earlier this year.

But the Bill Barrett Corporation has now decided to challenge that ruling, intent on pursuing a plan that — according to conservation groups, would create an industrial drilling zone atop the Roan Plateau, with as many as 3,000 wells.

The fossil fuel industry has long argued that the Roan’s gas reserves were intended to be developed under the various federal laws, including the 1997 “Transfer Act,” which requires the BLM to issue leases “as soon as practicable.” A BLM timeline for Roan Plateau planning is online here.

Fossil fuel companies characterized the BLM’s decision to revise the plan as “federal obstables’ that prevent esponsible development of western oil and natural gas on our public lands.

Reacting to the BLM’s decision to redo the plan in January, Western Energy Alliance vice president of government and public affairs Kathleen Sgamma said, “It’s now been over 15 years since Congress mandated that the natural gas on the Roan Plateau be developed. BLM spent an exhaustive 8 years conducting in-depth environmental analysis, and a judge found only minor deficiencies in their plan, which can be corrected relatively quickly.

“Rather than making the adjustments and getting on with allowing the development of American energy and job creation, Interior has decided to go back to the beginning and further delay economic growth on Colorado’s West Slope. This is yet another example of why production of natural gas on public lands is down, even as overall production on private lands has increased dramatically,

In a press release, the Western Energy Alliance highlighted what it says are stringent requirements for the Roan that will allow for energy development while protecting resources:

  • Only 350 acres of disturbance at any given time, while protecting 38,427 acres from any development at all, including nearly 23,000 acres of wildlife areas identified by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
  • Drilling and related activities are limited from December through April in nearly 35,000 acres of critical big game winter range below the rim.
  • A drilling area would have to be restored before work could begin in another area.
  • About half the public lands on top would be off limits.
  • No new roads or pipelines would be allowed on the sides of the plateau visible from I-70.
  • Four Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) are designated in the plan, covering over 21,000 acres, or 29 percentof the planning area.
  • Large portions of the ACECs are provided protection from long-term, ground-disturbing activities.
  • These include the entire Parachute Creek watershed, other riparian areas, and large blocks of sensitive habitats for certain vegetation and wildlife.
  • Slopes greater than 20 percent on top of the plateau are off limits to development, thereby further protecting the canyons and precipices.
  • The plateau top already has 157 miles of roads and 31 wells drilled on private lands.

In addition to challenging the fossil fuel industry’s appeal, the conservation groups are asking the appeals court to clarify several other points in the Judge Krieger’s ruling.

“Their argument is that Judge Krieger got it wrong on the law and the facts,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman. “We’re glad that BLM is going back to the drawing board and considering a new plan for the Roan Plateau. We will continue this fight in the appellate Court to ensure that the agency can give the Roan the protection it deserves,” Freeman said.

“BLM’s plan, which was adopted during the waning days of the Bush administration, would have sacrificed one of Colorado’s natural gems to the oil and gas industry,” said Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop, one of the groups that had challenged plan in the original lawsuit.  “The district court recognized that there is a better way, and sent the plan back to BLM to reconsider.  We hope the Court of Appeals will affirm that ruling.”
The Colorado Natural Heritage Program ranks the Roan Plateau as one of the four most biologically rich areas in Colorado –  the other three are already protected as part of the National Park System. An estimated 59 threatened or sensitive animal species are known to or may live in and around the Planning Area.
The top of the Plateau is home to “nationally and regionally significant” populations of Colorado River cutthroat trout. The Roan also provides a stronghold for Mule deer and elk, and is home to some of the rarest plants in North America.  As a consequence of this natural bounty, the Roan Plateau supports a significant economy in hunting, fishing, and backcountry recreation.
“We offered a common-sense middle-ground approach that would have allowed development to occur in appropriate places while protecting the top of the Roan Plateau from drilling,” said Marc Ross of Rock the Earth, on of the groups that had challenged plan in the original lawsuit. “The district court recognized that the Community Alternative merited a full review by BLM.  We hope the Court will reject Bill Barrett’s effort to block that review.”
“There are few areas in Colorado like the Roan Plateau,” added Pete Maysmith, Executive Director of Colorado Conservation Education Fund. “The District Court was correct in ruling that the Bureau of Land Management has to do a better job of analyzing the significant environmental impacts that will come if the Plateau is opened up to heavy industrial drilling.
The sooner this case is dismissed the sooner a common sense plan for the Plateau can be developed which will protect this treasured landscape for future generations to enjoy.”

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