Raiding the Roan

Rich in wildlife and natural resources, the Roan Plateau survived the last energy boom. Will this one destroy it?

"I think the current inspection system reflects the law," Griebling says. "To truly satisfy groups like the GVCA, you'd have to materially change the law. They don't like the fact that the law promotes development of the gas resource."

Already skeptical of state oversight of the drilling on private land, locals anticipate that drilling on the Roan Plateau will present similar hazards -- with more dramatic effects on water and air quality. The drilling will involve penetrating aquifers there, too, Elderkin insists. It's likely that wells won't be allowed on slopes of more than 50 percent or within a quarter-mile of streams, but Goddard says several springs on the plateau are located outside of those buffer zones.

Both men also wonder what sort of reclamation of the well pads will be required once the gas is played out. Griebling defends the state's rules for restoring drill sites to their natural state as "more detailed than other states' or the BLM's," but Elderkin is unimpressed with some of the reseeding jobs he's seen.

Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor 
to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling 
will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive 
wildlife from the area.
Mark Manger
Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive wildlife from the area.

"In some places you get good reclamation," the former BLM man says. "In others, all you get is the white alkaline crust. Nothing grows there. They save the topsoil when they build the pad. But in this country, topsoil is kind of a misnomer. It might have the organic matter, but it's shallow. When you tear it up, all these salt layers below it get mixed in."

COGCC regulations state that reseeding with species "consistent with the adjacent plants is encouraged" and that the reclaimed area should be "reasonably free" of weeds. A 1997 study by the agency of reclamation efforts in Garfield County concluded that, even by its standards, three-quarters of the disturbed land at 21 sites operated by four different companies was in "unacceptable condition" -- poorly seeded or rife with weeds, oil stains or erosion.

"So much of it isn't put back to native," Goddard complains. "They throw down pasture mix, and in a couple of years it's gone, and it's nothing but a weed patch. They've taken the native grasses, the native browse, the bitterbrushes, the snowberry bushes -- all that should be required to be put back in."

The valley is a "challenging area to reclaim" because of its aridity, Cesark says, adding that Williams has gone to extraordinary lengths, trucking in topsoil and working voluntarily with the state on wildlife-enhancement projects. One preliminary study conducted by a local biologist even suggests that mule deer prefer the menu at some of the company's reclaimed well sites to background vegetation. "Overall, I think our reclamation has been very successful," he says. "We have some failures, some sites we go back to. There are temporary disturbances. But you can replace the original vegetation with better vegetation and improve the habitat. That's our goal."

Over the next few decades, deterioration of air quality may be the most serious threat posed by drilling on the Roan. Oil and gas production in states such as Oklahoma and Texas has been linked to rising levels of ozone and greenhouse gases. One recent study indicates that even New Mexico's sparsely populated San Juan County, a hotbed of oil and gas rigs, now has higher levels of ethane than many samples taken in smog-ridden cities. Vapor emissions from the heavy concentration of natural-gas wells in Weld County appear to be hiking ozone levels as far away as Rocky Mountain National Park and the fringes of metro Denver, prompting health officials to call for new controls to keep the air quality from violating federal standards.

Where gas wells multiply, the air no longer sparkles. It bites.

More than a year ago, the BLM's Glenwood Springs office unveiled six preliminary options for managing the Roan Plateau, ranging from maintaining the status quo ("no action") to opening up most of the area for drilling. Alternative F, which would have protected and enhanced the ecological richness of the area and all but banned drilling from the top, was overwhelmingly favored by local citizens, town and county officials and environmental interests.

But when BLM officials began another round of meetings with key groups a few months later, it soon became clear that Alternative F had vanished from the bureau's list of options, which were now down to four. The Garfield County commissioners fired off a letter to the BLM's point man, wondering why they weren't consulted about this so-called "streamlining" of the planning process.

"This represented a major policy decision that disregarded and shortchanged... input from a wide array of respondents," the letter noted. The commissioners also said they believed the BLM had made "no compelling case for any leasing on top of the plateau."

Jamie Connell, field manager for the BLM's Glenwood Springs office, says that components of Alternative F can still be found in the remaining four options, including the "no-action" option. "We believe that everything that is in F that needed to be analyzed is being analyzed," she says. "The final, preferred alternative could be a combination of any of the [remaining] four. I would venture that none of the four are perfect."

Yet no one expects the BLM to adopt the "no-action" option. With Alternative F off the table, the battle over the Roan has become a dispute over well spacing and density. Preservationists want to see as few rigs as possible through extensive use of directional drilling. But state-of-the-art directional equipment can cost as much as $50,000 a day to operate, and the plateau, with its extra thousands of feet of overburden between the surface and the resource, presents imposing costs even without that additional expense.

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