Roan plan cuts drilling area

Roan plan cuts drilling area

Less than half the area on top of and below the Roan Plateau would be opened to natural gas drilling, according to a management plan released Thursday. The remainder would see protections designed to preserve wildlife, views and rare plants.

With the western flank of the Roan Plateau in view, Bureau of Land Management officials unveiled a compromise plan that seeks to balance competing visions for the landmark, which has drawn comparisons to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for its battle lines between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists. The energy industry believes a vast supply of natural gas lies deep below. Environmentalists, hunters and a host of nearby communities have rallied to keep the plateau free from gas rigs.

Two years after a draft first called for opening much of the plateau for drilling, the new Bureau of Land Management plan puts in place a number of restrictions designed to reduce well pads, roads and pipelines and limit them to less-sensitive landscapes. It forbids drilling on more than 1 percent of the top at a time and requires sites to be reclaimed before new wells are drilled. BLM officials believe 90 percent of the gas reserves could be reached, despite the restrictions.

BLM Field Director Jamie Connell called it an “innovative and creative” plan that allows for drilling while accommodating environmental concerns.

BLM officials “recognize that all the elements of this plan will not please everyone,” said State Director Sally Wisely, “… but we think the plan goes a long way in addressing the concerns we heard.”

Environmentalists who attended the plan’s unveiling said they were pleased by the protections but disappointed the BLM didn’t heed pleas from local communities and a deluge of public comments seeking to bar drilling from the top altogether. They said they wouldn’t decide if they would protest until after reviewing the plan, a three-inch-thick document in three volumes.

A spokeswoman for the oil and gas industry said energy companies wouldn’t protest.

Rising 3,000 feet above Rifle, the Roan Plateau towers over what geologists say is one of the richest parts of the Piceance Basin, one of the most actively-drilled natural gas fields in the country. An estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of federally-owned natural gas is believed to lie some 8,000 to 11,000 feet below, enough to heat 4 million homes for 20 years.

Environmentalists say drilling would damage the area’s wild character. The vast mesa’s aspen groves, conifer forests and sagebrush meadows are home to deer and elk, and rare plants found nowhere else. Its streams include a towering waterfall and populations of genetically-pure cutthroat trout.

The BLM plan protects some of the plateau’s more fragile areas, including the canyons and streams, as well as the cliffs visible from below. Scrapping much of the draft plan, which allowed gas drilling on the valley floor before opening up the top, BLM officials leaned heavily on a Colorado Department of Natural Resources plan which sought more clustered development to protect wildlife corridors. State wildlife officials feared the draft would wreak havoc on the area’s deer and elk by devastating the fields they winter in below.

“It’s all about balance,” DNR Director Russell George, a Rifle native, said of the plan. “We can’t tip to one point of view or another.”

Drilling would be barred from more than half the planning area to protect wildlife, trout, water quality and the views from below. That includes four sensitive sites: the East Fork of Parachute Creek, Trapper’s Creek, Magpie Gulch and Anvil Points.

The top would be considered a federal unit, allowing a number of gas companies to lease the minerals but just one to act as operator, a move designed to limit the roads, pipelines, compressor stations and other facilities.

Rigs would be limited to higher ridges and flatter landscapes, and only 350 acres could be disturbed at a time. Well pads would be limited to one per 160 acres and staggered at least a half-mile apart.

“It’s exciting to see that the BLM is thinking out of the box,” said Claire Bastable, with the Colorado Mountain Club. “It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t end up with a plan that reflects what the community wanted.”

Each town in Garfield County had urged the BLM to bar drilling altogether from the top. They were joined by environmentalists, outfitters and some 74,000 public comments from across the country. BLM officials said a drilling ban would violate the law that set aside the plateau.

“It’s not what the majority of the citizens and all the towns asked for,” said Steve Smith, of The Wilderness Society.

Smith said he worried the Roan’s vastness and remoteness would make the precautions hard to enforce and feared they could be whittled away by local officials.

“The plan is a huge compromise,” he said, “and if it gets compromised further day to day, you’re tempting trouble.”

Colorado Oil & Gas Association consultant Kathy Hall said the industry could accept the restrictions, but she worried limits of just one operator on top would reduce its value in the bidding process.

“It’s new and it’s innovative,” she said of the plan. “We’re going to have to see how it works out.”

Thursday’s release caps over five years of planning for the vast plateau northwest of Rifle. Set aside in 1912 as a Naval Oil Shale Reserve, it was transferred from the Energy Department to the BLM in 1997.

Colorado’s senators split on how the BLM’s handled the plan. Sen. Wayne Allard, R, praised the agency’s outreach to local communities and state agencies, saying Congress intended drilling to take place when it transferred the land.

“The creative solutions embodied in this final environmental impact statement should serve as a model to other federal agencies,” he said in a press release.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D, who has opposed drilling on top of the plateau, said he was disappointed the BLM rejected his request to open the plan to more public comment. He called the protections “creative, but as yet unproven.”

“The top of the Roan Plateau is one of Colorado’s special places,” he said in a statement, “and I continue to believe that this area should not be opened to drilling for oil and gas at this time.”

The Bush administration put the Roan Plateau on a list of 10 places whose plans should be fast-tracked because of their gas reserves, and it received close scrutiny from throughout the Interior Department. BLM Director Kathleen Clarke and Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson each toured the site.

“I think Washington feels good about the process we’ve gone through here,” said Nicely, the state BLM director. “I think there is support for the proposed plan and frankly I think there’s a great deal of interest in what response we do get.”

A 30-day protest period begins Sept. 15. Gov. Bill Owens has 60 days to review the plan for consistency with state law. Connell said the plan couldn’t be implemented until any protests are resolved.

The plan can be found at

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