Raiding the Roan

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

"The industry always says, 'Let us in; we can be environmentally sound,'" notes Suzanne Jones of the Wilderness Society. "Then, when you tell them to do it as softly as they can, they say it's too expensive and they can't do it that way here. But directional drilling has been required in many places, and the industry finds a way to deal with it."

Cesark says the tight sand formations under the plateau will require many different drill sites for effective gas recovery. At the base of the plateau, his company is averaging 100-acre well-pad spacing on the surface while the wells themselves have a "downhole" spacing of ten acres, thanks to directional drilling. Whether that kind of ratio could be maintained on top is anybody's guess. "We see many challenges associated with directional drilling from the top of the plateau," Cesark explains. "We're not saying it isn't going to happen, but we're dealing with an extremely tight formation. We can drill up to a third of a mile directionally; we prefer to stay within a quarter-mile."

The BLM can impose stipulations on gas leases that would restrict the scope of the drilling. But the kind of stipulations that locals are pushing for in any Roan leasing -- restrictions on location, season, spacing and a host of other variables -- go beyond anything the agency has attempted.

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.

"There's not a lot of precedent at the leasing stage to try to identify the density for the surface management or the downhole density," Connell says. Such issues do get addressed at later stages of the process, she adds, but "we try to focus on an outcome-based plan as opposed to designating technology."

Without such stipulations, though, there's nothing to prevent a gas company from setting up rigs that might be a mile or a half-mile apart, then applying for increased density permits months or years later that would allow more and more rigs, spaced forty acres apart, even twenty acres. Such requests are granted not by the BLM, but by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

According to director Griebling, the COGCC has turned down "some" increased-density requests, but he acknowledges that most are approved. "Operators tend to start developing a certain play with a conservative approach," he says. "As they acquire more data, if the data justifies additional wells, they come back before the commission."

After the BLM releases its draft plan for the Roan later this month, a ninety-day public-comment period will follow. Garfield County Commissioner Houpt calls that phase "critical" to the future of the plateau.

"I want to see a process that is going to be more than a smokescreen," she says. "The local BLM office has every intention of including us in the process, but I don't think they'll have the final say, either. By the time the plan gets back to Washington, we could lose everything we've created."

Delays in releasing the plan, which originally was scheduled to be out months ago, have fueled speculation that it's being shaped elsewhere. "I think it's being written in Denver and Washington," says Elderkin. "People in the local office haven't seen copies of the draft. They've been told to make it happen."

Connell says the delay is due to technical glitches, not politics. "There's been a significant amount of discussion of this document, given that it hasn't been released yet," she notes. "People need to wait and see what the draft contains when it comes out."

It's part of the BLM culture to talk about a planning process as if it were a continuum with no end point, an infinite tinkering, but even a draft plan signals choices that may be irrevocable. Here are three of them:

Once the Roan Plateau is opened up for gas leasing, the prospects of obtaining wilderness protection for the area become as remote as Shangri-La.

Once the BLM allows a certain level of well spacing, it can never go back and try to impose a more restrictive level on the same lease.

And once a single producing well is drilled on a piece of BLM land, that lease is extended beyond its original ten-year term. It lasts as long as the company continues to work the lease in a diligent manner, or forever -- whichever comes first.

If Keith Goddard had to choose his favorite season on the plateau, it would be fall. The thick stands of aspen become molten seams of gold and the air crackles with impending frost, yet the brilliant autumnal light seems to promise a warm, earth-scented Indian summer without end, without consequence.

But Goddard doesn't like to choose. He takes to the plateau all times of year. As the sole outfitter for most of the BLM land on the plateau, he's the last man to strike his camp and escape by snowmobile as winter moves in -- only to return a few weeks later, looking for big cats. He's seen fawns playing on wobbly legs in spring, wild turkeys strutting in summer and bears foraging ravenously in the canyons as the long hibernation approaches. He's watched falcons nesting in the cliffs of Anvil Points, picnicked with his family in spangled fields of wildflowers, taken kids for their first fly-fishing experiences to places where they can't help but catch fish -- "and they're not elbow to elbow," he notes, "like they would be on the Frying Pan or the Roaring Fork."

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