The stark shale cliffs rise north of the interstate, towering over the town of Rifle. From below, the 3,500-foot stone pillars look forbidding and lifeless, like books placed on a shelf for show. But to Joe Clugston, there's nothing dead about the geologic upheaval looming over his home -- not yet, anyway.
"We call them the Book Cliffs," says Clugston, a former Rifle city councilman. "They're part of the town. They are the town. I've been running that hill for sixty years. Hunting, hiking -- just being up and away."
Man and boy, Clugston has made the journey up the cliffs more times than he cares to count. There used to be three public-access roads. Now there are only two -- steep, switchback-happy affairs, all but impassable in winter. But the journey was always worth it. Above the rim is the Roan Plateau, a series of anvil-like mesas separated by steep red-rock canyons, one of the state's most scenic and least-known refuges from civilization.
Sprawling over 53,000 acres to the north of the Colorado River, from Rifle to Parachute, with an average elevation of 8,000 feet, the plateau is a dramatic, rolling encounter with dense aspen groves and old-growth Douglas fir, juniper woodlands and meadows of wildflowers. The box canyons teem with timber, hanging garden seeps, black bears and mountain lions. Grouse, elk and mule deer roam the sagebrush. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles soar above the cliffs. The abundant springs and creeks feed roaring waterfalls, including the spectacular 200-foot falls on the East Fork of Parachute Creek. They also harbor rare plants and toads and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout.
Thirty years ago, Clugston brought a Navy buddy from Alabama home on leave and took him up to the plateau. While his friend stood speechless, Clugston pointed out the purple spine of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, the Continental Divide to the east, the Flat Tops to the north, the Grand Valley and Mount Sopris to the south.
"You know," the man from Alabama drawled at last, "all my life I heard this expression, 'The air sparkled.' I knew what that meant, I guess, but I've never seen it sparkle until now."
In his youth, Clugston used to wander the Roan for days without coming across another person -- but those times are over. In addition to ranchers with grazing permits, the plateau now attracts hikers, hunters, anglers and other fans of the backcountry. Yet the canyons still thrive with game, and the air still sparkles.
"I can get up there and see forever," Clugston says. "We still have many days like that, where you can see Utah or the lightning on the Divide."
But those days are numbered, too, Clugston fears. From his home on the valley floor, he can trace the clouds of dust raised by big trucks bringing fuel and equipment to the natural-gas rigs that have sprouted along both flanks of the Colorado River -- a noisy, relentless, earth-flattening march of extraction that, in recent years, has reached all the way to the base of the plateau. The Roan is now an island, with gas wells lapping at its shore. If the energy industry has its way, before long the plateau itself will be riddled with hundreds of wells, drilling into narrow pockets of gas trapped more than two miles below the rim.
According to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, a non-profit organization sponsored by Colorado State University, the Roan Plateau is among the four most biologically diverse areas on the Western Slope. The other three are federally protected national parks or monuments. Not so the Roan: The top of the plateau is a mix of private land and 35,000 acres managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Although the BLM acknowledges that much of the plateau has "wilderness characteristics," the agency is also under mounting pressure from the Bush administration to open up more of its lands for energy development. The Roan is on a national list of 21 high-priority BLM properties slated for expedited management plans because, in addition to its other riches, the plateau happens to sit on top of an estimated 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources values the recoverable portion of that gas at $22 billion; industry sources say it's enough to heat 2.5 million homes for more than two decades.
The gas is part of an enormous field that stretches across northwest Colorado's Piceance Basin, sometimes referred to as the "Persian Gulf of natural gas." Over the past five years, rising prices and improving technology have triggered a frenzy of gas drilling on public and private lands across the Grand Valley. Garfield County now has more than 1,400 wells, operating at a higher average density than anywhere else in the country. Nearly 400 wells were permitted in 2003, double the number from two years earlier, with another 500 projected for the coming year.
But the industry wants more. This month, the BLM is expected to release a long-awaited draft management plan for the plateau that will propose leasing thousands of acres for drilling on top. Although the exact details aren't yet known, some of the more gung-ho alternatives under discussion have included drilling as many as 180 wells per year from multi-well pads located anywhere from 40 to 160 acres apart -- more than a thousand wells over the next twenty years, with all of the roads, noise, dust and pollution that go with them.
"I think you're going to see vast areas of canyons that are off-limits, and other areas where forty-acre density may be appropriate," says Dave Cesark, principal environmental specialist for Williams Production, an Oklahoma-based gas company that operates hundreds of wells at the base of the plateau and five already drilled on private land on top.
Environmental activists insist that the scale of development contemplated by the BLM would be devastating to wildlife, forever altering the character of the plateau. They're pushing for the agency to explore ways to get at the gas from the base, using cutting-edge technology in directional drilling, a costly but less damaging way of tapping into oil and gas in ecologically sensitive areas.
"The markets are going to change, and things that aren't necessarily economical now are going to become so," says Steve Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "We shouldn't be in a big rush to drill from the top when someday we may be able to get that gas without wrecking the dense forests, critical habitat and amazing scenery that's up there."
Concerns about drilling the plateau aren't confined to the usual environmental groups. The most vocal opposition to the drilling proposal has come from a broad range of community interests -- from ranchers, outfitters and other locals who have a direct stake in the future of the plateau, as well as town officials and business leaders who fear the drilling will puncture a local economy that relies heavily on agriculture, hunting and tourism. Citizens' groups have also questioned what drilling on the Roan will do to air quality, water quality and the general quality of life in the Grand Valley.
At hearings that the BLM conducted last year, more than 90 percent of the public comments and the leadership of six towns in Garfield County opposed large-scale drilling on top of the plateau. "I have never seen unified support from all the municipalities in our county before," says Trési Houpt, a county commissioner. "There's an implication that they're actually going to listen to our comments and recommendations. But I'm not a true believer that will actually happen."
Houpt has reason to be skeptical. A few months ago, the BLM quietly abandoned the most popular alternative discussed at those meetings, which would have called for stringent measures to protect the wilderness character of the plateau. Although Gale Norton, the Coloradan who heads the U.S. Department of the Interior, has pledged to follow "the four Cs" approach to public lands policy -- consultation, communication and cooperation, all in the cause of conservation -- that doesn't seem to apply to the administration's designs on the Roan.
"This is a top-down approach to public-lands management that ignores the public, despite their mantra about the four Cs," says Suzanne Jones, a regional coordinator for the Wilderness Society.
The battle over the Roan Plateau is shaping up as a critical test case for the Bush administration's high-octane energy policy, which calls for subsidizing risky drilling ventures, unlocking previously untouchable resources and stalling legislative efforts to extend wilderness protection to more public lands. The policy draws heavily on the rhetoric of achieving energy independence, for the sake of national security as well as for boosting the economy. But critics say that drilling on the Roan will do nothing to lower gas prices or boost reserves and may not recover nearly as much gas as anticipated. What it will do, they predict, is make a national sacrifice zone out of a unique wild place while adding to the burdens of a community already besieged by widespread gas drilling and its consequences.
"We just believe that you don't have to drill every last inch of this country to get every last drop of gas out," says Peggy Utesch, president of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance, which has dueled with state officials and gas companies over the wells in Garfield County. "There are places where it's simply not appropriate to drill, and this is one of them."
According to Clugston, the Roan in its present state is already "an industry for the town" -- one that, unlike an energy boom, has sustainability. "It's a natural wilderness area, and I don't use that term the way politicians use it," he says. "It's a resource I don't want to lose."
It's a crisp November day in Rifle, and the town seems to be hosting twice as many people as its stated population of 7,000. The restaurants are packed. The motels have their NO VACANCY lights on. A massive new Wal-Mart on the east side of town is advertising a grand opening. Orange-suited men cruise the main drag in muddy pickups, past knickknack shacks, liquor stores plastered with "Welcome Hunters" Budweiser posters and special deals on twelve-packs, Rifle Middle School (home of the Cubs) and a sign announcing "last chance team roping" at the Garfield County Fairgrounds.
Not all of the bustle belongs to the hunting season. Not every truck sports a gun rack and orange jumpsuits. Some are high-mileage beaters from Utah and Wyoming -- roughneck crews from Vernal, from Gillette, from God knows where, following the march of the gas rigs across the valley floor.
Sipping coffee in the Base Camp Cafe, Bob Elderkin surveys the traffic outside with more than a hint of distaste. "There are Gillette license plates all over this place," he says. "This gas play, it boggles your mind. They're already drilling from Parachute to the top of Uncle Bob Mountain -- that's at least thirty miles."
Elderkin waits patiently for the waitress to notice his drained cup. "A lot of these motel and cafe owners think this is great right now," he says. "But if they go up to the plateau and destroy that, business ain't gonna be so great. Once these roughnecks leave town, there ain't gonna be nobody behind them. Hunting? Ain't gonna be any. Grazing? That'll be history."
Folksy and soft-spoken, with more than a trace of the late actor Richard Farnsworth in his manner and mustache, Elderkin is a hunter, outdoorsman -- and nobody's idea of a tree-hugging alarmist. In 2000, he retired from the BLM's Glenwood Springs office after eighteen years of service. Before that, he worked in the U.S. Geological Survey's oil-shale division, and before that for the U.S. Forest Service -- in all, nearly forty years working as a steward of federal lands.
Elderkin's relationship with the BLM is of much longer duration than the agency's ties to the Roan Plateau. The area was home for centuries to the Utes, who raised roan horses there, before white settlers began using the land as summer pasturage for sheep and cattle. Except for grazing, it was a neglected part of the federal inventory until the Navy took it over in 1935, designating it as a strategic energy stockpile -- not for gas, but for the oil shale buried in its cliffs.
The Naval Oil Shale Reserve never became a going concern, largely because the technology involved in extracting oil from shale -- crushing tons of rock and heating it to extreme temperatures to produce driblets of oil -- proved to be messy, expensive and entirely unworkable. A retort plant on the cliffs operated sporadically but closed more than twenty years ago -- around the same time that Exxon's grander scheme to turn much of western Colorado upside down and cook it proved unfeasible and collapsed, sending the local economy into a tailspin. By that time, the Navy had handed the public lands on the plateau over to the Department of Energy, which transferred them to the BLM in 1997.
The management plan now being drafted for the plateau is its first under BLM control. It comes at a time when the agency is under fire not only from energy interests eager to boost production from public lands, but from the green lobby, which charges that the BLM is no longer doing what it should to protect wilderness areas.
The wilderness potential of the Roan has been discovered by increasing legions of hikers since its transfer to the BLM six years ago. Doug DeNio, who lives in Battlement Mesa, recalls a trip that his hiking club took to the East Fork Falls last summer. "People in my group hike all over the West, and they were just amazed," he says. "They couldn't believe that something that scenic and pristine is that close to these population centers. It really is a hidden jewel."
Various proposals to designate much of the plateau as a wilderness area have been advanced in recent years, only to be stalled in red tape. (One bill sponsored by Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat, which would have protected 1.6 million acres of federal land in Colorado, remains in limbo in the Republican Congress.) Last April, Interior Secretary Norton cut a back-room deal to settle a lawsuit brought by the State of Utah; under the settlement, the BLM is prohibited from making further recommendations for wilderness designation of any of its lands. Loudly denounced by environmentalists, the maneuver made hash of years of wilderness studies and opened up millions of acres in the West, including the Roan Plateau, to possible development.
Even before Norton's pre-emptive strike, many locals were wary of the effort to label the plateau as wilderness. They point out that the area has more than 200 miles of roads, well-established grazing permits, a handful of gas wells on private land, and a growing influx of visitors, from hunters to shutterbugs to off-road motoring enthusiasts.
"That ain't a wilderness area to me," says Elderkin. "To a lot of other people, it is. That's a matter of opinion. But it is a good area for multiple use. There are a lot of valuable things up there besides oil and gas, and we ought to be thinking about how we can get that gas out of there without destroying the place."
The most obvious disturbance more drilling would bring is the infrastructure that goes with the rigs: roads, pipelines, generators, trucks -- all the incessant activity now visible on the valley floor. If the industry is allowed to drill hundreds of wells a year on the plateau, Elderkin muses, the operation will require a vast network of new roads, leading to a fragmentation of habitat for wildlife. And unless there are tight restrictions on access, more roads mean more people.
"The roads are probably the worst part of the whole drilling operation," Elderkin says. "As soon as you build a road, the public jumps on it. The American public anymore is divinely adverse to walking, and with these ATVs, you can go anywhere. Hunters are the absolute worst. They get on ATVs and they're like a bunch of goddamn chickens. They just scatter. And once you got roads and vehicles, the sound carries an unbelievable distance. With the noise and harassment, the elk just leave.
"You can see what I'm talking about right now. The first two or three days of the season, the hunting's great up there. But after that, unless you know what you're doing, you don't get nothing. Now what if you had that kind of disturbance year-round, all over the place?"
According to Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates, hunting on the plateau pumps roughly $3.8 million a year into the local economy.
"The hunting season is a big season for us," says Rifle mayor Keith Lambert. "If there's a huge change up there that affects hunting and fishing and grazing, it will have an impact on us. It's not that we're against any kind of development. It's the spacing and the infrastructure that concern us."
Industry officials maintain that deer, elk and other game are surprisingly adaptable and can often be found grazing in the shadow of gas rigs. But that hasn't been the experience of Keith Goddard, a Rifle outfitter who spends several months a year on the plateau, guiding clients through one hunting season after another. While hunting mountain lions at lower elevations, he's noticed a dwindling winter deer population between Rifle and Rulison, an area that's experienced intensive drilling in recent years.
"I've run around that country for years and years, and in wintertime, there used to be thousands of deer," Goddard says. "The last three or four years, I've seen the same dozen deer."
Goddard's business takes a hit when out-of-state hunters invade the plateau. The motorized legions drive the game into more remote areas, and that requires the outfitter to get more creative. Recently, he says, he was packing out elk on horseback when he came across some hunters on ATVs: "This guy says, 'Man, where'd you get them?' He says he'd covered a thousand miles that week and hadn't seen a single elk. I told him, 'If you cover another thousand miles, I'll keep killing elk.' They get down where people on ATVs won't go."
Goddard thinks that wildlife on top of the plateau are holding their own despite the area's increasing popularity. He's run into elk in February, when conditions on the plateau resemble a blustery day in Siberia. But if somebody starts setting up gas wells on the rim, spaced no more than forty acres apart and operating year-round, that will all change, he says.
"If they go to forty acres, it's gone," Goddard predicts. "Nobody's pushing any time restrictions on the operations. When you get into your calving and fawning areas, it's crucial that those animals aren't stressed, and vehicle noise and traffic add to the stress. That whole plateau is a calving area. It doesn't take much to change the way animals have acted for over a hundred years."
Goddard and Elderkin would both like to see the number of well pads, roads and trucks on the plateau severely limited, possibly by bringing in crews by helicopter and restricting drilling operations to particular seasons as well as less sensitive locations. But Cesark, the environmental point man for Williams -- which would presumably be one of the key bidders for gas leases on the plateau -- says that the degree of disturbance drilling would bring to the plateau has been greatly overstated.
"I find it hard to believe that many new roads will have to be built," he says. "You're going to see anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the land off-limits to surface occupancy."
Williams built fewer than four miles of roads to drill 160 wells at the base of the plateau, Cesark points out. The company makes extensive use of existing BLM roads and is using directional drilling to limit the number of new well pads. "The industry has gotten good about using the existing infrastructure and minimizing the disturbance we create," he says.
But an internal Colorado Division of Wildlife memorandum obtained by Westword projects that oil and gas development could produce up to 170 miles of new roads on top of the plateau, a 70 percent increase in the current road system. The same document concludes that full-scale development of the Roan planning area, both above and below the rim, would drastically reduce mule deer winter range and that removing time restrictions on drilling activities would result in "dire consequences for wildlife."
The DOW's recommendations were considerably at odds with the views of another state agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is charged with overseeing oil and gas development in the state. The final report issued by the Department of Natural Resources presents a watered-down version of the DOW's comments, recommending fewer locations for consideration as "areas of critical environmental concern" and urging that surface drilling be limited to an average of one multi-well pad per 160 acres; in other words, forty-acre sites could proliferate in some areas as long as other, overly steep or ecologically sensitive locations were left alone.
Even if the drilling activities end up producing fewer well pads and new roads than the DOW fears, the noise and pollution associated with the operations still trouble many locals. Joe Clugston, for example, can speak eloquently and at length about the soil on the plateau and what big trucks might do to it.
"People don't seem to realize the actual environmental damage of dust," Clugston says. "Dust can kill trees; it can cover grass so the stock won't eat it. And that soil we have on the Book Cliffs is very, very fine. That shale grinds down finer than talcum powder. Every time you disrupt the soil, you create erosion and dust, and that disrupts the whole system. Game management is only part of it."
The roads up to the plateau are layers of dust or mud in the summer, ice in the winter. The gas companies have their own dust-mitigation strategies, including water and chemical trucks that are supposed to wet down the roads, but Clugston is dubious of their ability to subdue the Roan. "On those roads, if you spit on the ground, you will slide," he says. "Chains are sometimes useless. When it gets wet, it will stick to your tires, and you're riding mud over mud."
Elderkin has driven down the steep southern road from the rim in late fall with his truck doors open, ready to jump out if his vehicle starts to slide off the ridge. If the gas companies want year-round access to their rigs, "they're going to have to pave the roads," he says. "And if you pave them, that's the end of the wildlife. Unless you're racing ATVs around, there'll be no reason to go up there."
Cesark insists that all of the doomsday scenarios are premature and highly speculative, given the fact that the BLM hasn't yet released its plan for the plateau. "It's also important to talk about the economic impact and the jobs that would be generated," he says. "At a time when we're in a recession, this is one way to have economic growth. One rig, on average, employs 44 workers at a $2.2 million annual payroll. We've had a huge economic impact on Garfield County."
Mayor Lambert says Rifle hasn't felt much effect, positive or negative, from the current drilling boom other than an uptick in retail revenues from drill crews spending cash in town. The severance taxes paid by the gas companies go to the state and the county, he points out. He believes that energy development is only a small part of the growth his town has experienced in recent years, and he doesn't expect it to last. Not like the other benefits that come from having the Roan as the town's back yard.
"We want to see the traditional uses continue on the plateau," he says. "We don't want to see it chopped up into tiny pieces of real estate with roads all over. We want some of that pristine quality to remain."
As the number of gas wells in the county has steadily increased, so has the membership of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance. The grassroots organization began six years ago as the brainchild of a handful of environmentally concerned residents; its members now include many ranchers, people involved in real estate, construction and tourism, and others impacted by the drilling.
Dealing with gas companies and state regulators has given GVCA's leaders a jaundiced view of how the industry operates in Colorado, and their experiences have helped to shape local concerns about the risks involved in drilling on the plateau.
"One of our themes is to hold industry accountable," says GVCA president Peggy Utesch. "But the players constantly change. We used to be dealing with Barrett Resources, now it's Williams [which acquired Barrett in 2001]. It takes a couple of years of putting pressure on these companies, making them front-page news for their bad practices, and they start to get on board. Then they're gone, and somebody else moves in."
Many valley residents are living on a "split estate" -- they purchased land and possibly an existing home, but not the mineral rights to the property, which were retained by some prior owner or developer. Under state law, the surface occupants are entitled to little control, and often little compensation, when energy companies come calling, eager to exercise their rights to extract the minerals below ("Gas Pains," October 4, 2001). One GVCA member recently returned from vacation to find new roads and wells on his property; the gas company said it had made a "good faith" effort to notify him before proceeding.
"Theoretically, you negotiate in good faith," says homeowner Garland Anderson. "But if it doesn't please the gas company, they can have the operation bonded and do it without you. It's kind of like going to a negotiation with a knife when the other guy has a gun."
Anderson and his wife purchased their retirement home on Grass Mesa, across the river from Rifle, fourteen years ago. Their eighty-acre spread is part of a 3,000-acre subdivision surrounded by BLM land. In recent months, the area has been targeted by EnCana, a Canadian gas company. Anderson has watched the wells, waste ponds and trucks sprout all around him; just a few weeks ago, he received a certified letter informing him of EnCana's desire to drill on his land.
"We bought for retirement, for aesthetic values, for the wildlife and the quietness and the fresh air," Anderson says. "All of a sudden, that's gone to heck in a handbasket. When we first got here, there was anywhere from 300 to 600 head of elk gathered down on the end of our lower forty, and several hundred deer at any time. This year I haven't seen a single elk on our property, and maybe six deer. They're running off the wildlife; we're sucking in the diesel fumes. Lots of trucks, lots of noise. And the dust is unbelievable. I had a computer burn up because of the dust inside, even though I was cleaning it out once a month."
Before his retirement, Anderson worked for oil companies engaged in offshore seismic exploration around the globe. These days, he's a prolific writer of letters to the editor of the local newspaper, questioning the gas boom and state policies that favor the gas companies over landowners. "People love to say, 'You knew what you were getting into when you bought the property without mineral rights,'" he says. "Well, we bought what we could afford, and nobody expected this level of development."
Even residents who aren't directly in the path of the drilling protest that the wells have a negative effect on their "viewshed" and property values. New wells often have to be "flared," burning off impure gas in a flickering visual display that can occur sporadically for several days. At night, the flaring on wells south of the river can make the area seem like a post-industrial nightmare out of Blade Runner.
"It gets to a point where you worry that you can't sell your land," says Duke Cox, a builder and GVCA boardmember who lives in the Silt area. "The public perception is that the area is going to be devastated -- and to some extent, they're right. It becomes a single-use area. Ranching and recreation become difficult when all you see are these rigs and compressor stations."
Utesch ticks off a long list of concerns shared by members of her group. Many of them involve water issues. The wells and compressors run on multiple diesel engines, raising fears about fuel spills. The waste pits contain an impressive array of heavy metals and chemicals used or pumped out of the ground in the extraction process, and not all companies line the pits with impermeable materials. In addition to the potential for groundwater contamination, there are also questions about the aquifers that the drills pass through on their way to the gas, aquifers critical to agriculture in the valley.
"The industry tells us what they do won't impact the aquifer, but if they punch a bunch of holes in it, how can they not?" Utesch asks. "They may be sealed off for now, but no one knows what the life span of the drill casing is. There's a lot of unanswered questions."
But industry and state officials say the companies have a solid track record in the valley. According to Cesark, there's been only one case of groundwater contamination out of the 780 wells that Williams and its predecessor, Barrett, have drilled in the county. "It affected a small, localized area, and that's in the process of being remediated," he says. "It's extremely rare."
Air tests at EnCana wells have indicated no violations of federal air quality standards, and state regulators say they're aware of only a handful of isolated problems involving the drilling in Garfield County. But Utesch says that's because many problems are never properly reported to or investigated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has a small staff and limited ability to actually inspect drilling sites.
"It's a complaint-driven system, but most people don't know who to call or go to for help," Utesch says. "During the drought, [a COGCC spokesman] stood up at a hearing and said there hadn't been any fires caused by flaring. When I reported that at a meeting of Divide Creek ranchers, two of them immediately said, 'Bullshit.' They had fires that burned their hay fields. They just hadn't been reported to the commission."
"Colorado is probably one of the most highly regulated states when it comes to oil and gas, but it's one of the least supervised and enforced," Anderson adds. "They don't have enough people to police these contract mineral extractors. When we complain loud enough and get an attorney, we can sometimes make them do what they're supposed to do in the first place."
Critics of the COGCC often characterize it as a regulator with a distinctly pro-industry tilt; Anderson refers to the agency as "the fox guarding the hen house." Members of the commission tend to have deep ties to the oil and gas industry, a trend that's continued with a vengeance in the appointments made by Governor Bill Owens, who was executive director of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association while serving in the state legislature ("This State for Sale," May 13, 1999). COGCC director Richard Griebling is familiar with the broadsides but says any pro-industry bias is a matter of law, not policy.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
Two and a half years ago, he and his wife, Vicky, had their wedding at his base camp on the plateau's Long Ridge. "I can't spend enough time in that country," Goddard says. "There's no place like it."
Of course, Goddard's preoccupations are of little matter to people in Denver or Omaha. Not when their heating bills are going through the roof, thanks to hefty increases in natural-gas rates. If there is any kind of clamor for increased gas drilling in places like the Roan Plateau, other than the salivating in the industry itself, it is from folks unaccustomed to emptying their wallets to keep warm. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that raiding the Roan won't solve their problem.
Demand for natural gas has remained relatively flat in the past decade, and the supply in proven reserves has actually increased. The chief cause of this year's price spikes, according to several energy-industry critics who testified before Congress in recent months, is a lack of storage capacity, restricting the ability to meet seasonal surges in demand and spurring volatility in the market.
"Drilling more wells will not bring down price if storage capacity is the limiting factor that drives up price," Pete Morton, a resource economist for the Wilderness Society, told a congressional task force on affordable natural gas last August. "More importantly, lack of access [to gas on public lands] is not a problem. Industry has plenty of access to public land -- perhaps too much."
While gas-industry advocates argue that it's practically their patriotic duty to drill on public lands in order to open up more reserves, USGS research suggests that, if all federal lands with untapped resources were opened to drilling, it would supply the nation's thirst for gas for less than two years.
The Roan Plateau's reserves, locked in tight sand formations, are particularly unpromising. While media reports routinely mention figures in excess of 5 trillion cubic feet of gas, that assumes an 80 percent recovery rate -- which could be realized only by having lots of gas rigs and lots of costly directional drilling all over the plateau. Williams's own study of its yield from wells at the base of the plateau found that twenty-acre well spacing recovered less than half of the gas in place; wells with bottomhole spacing of ten acres recovered 80 percent. And the existing wells on top of the plateau took, on average, seven times longer to drill than those at the base, making them even more expensive.
"Areas like the Roan Plateau are very high-risk," notes Morton. "You have to drill a lot of wells to get the gas out."
So why bother to drill on the Roan? One explanation might be the tax credits that gas companies receive for pursuing "unconventional" reserves -- credits that would be extended by the energy bill that's now stalled in Congress, following howls of protest over the billions of dollars in pork it contains. Another theory, popular in the Grand Valley, is that the Roan makes a convenient and possibly profitable target, even if there are less daunting gas fields elsewhere, because of its proximity to existing drilling operations, pipelines and an interstate highway.
"There's not enough gas under that plateau to make America energy-independent," scoffs the GVCA's Cox. "It's a drop in the bucket. But its proximity to their transmission lines, to rail and a major highway makes it more cost-efficient for them to drill there. That's wonderful for them, but what about us?"
There's a certain value to gas leases even in questionable areas, Morton points out, particularly for energy companies still reeling from the Enron debacle and related government investigations. "A lot of these companies are highly leveraged and are trying to refinance their debt, including Williams, which has been selling off assets," he notes. (Williams recently reported $3.1 billion in net proceeds from asset sales in 2003, part of an aggressive effort to reduce interest expense and debt.) "One reason you might want to get as many acres leased as possible is simply that you're more likely to get your refinancing; the leases become part of your collateral for your loan."
The federal government ought to require gas companies to "run the numbers," Morton contends, to show that a given operation is truly economically feasible before it leases public lands to those companies. And it ought to factor in the environmental cost of that drilling, he adds. If the goal is to create jobs, then a better policy would be to focus on energy conservation and efficiency efforts; a 1996 DOE study indicated that investing in such areas would produce a net gain of 8,400 jobs in Colorado alone -- along with cleaner air and $1.2 billion in savings in lower energy bills.
But to achieve such results would require a different sort of energy policy, one focused on extending existing reserves through conservation and ramping up development of alternatives to fossil fuels. "Everything you read says that by the year 2050, all the oil and gas reserves are going to be history," Elderkin says. "Then what are we going to do? Nobody's talking about that. It ain't going to bother me, because I'm going to be dead and gone, but my kids will have to face that."
Goddard believes that sacrificing the Roan Plateau to the dubious economics of the gas business makes no sense at all. "What are we going to leave for future generations?" he asks. "I'd like to see my grandkids enjoy half of what I've been able to enjoy. What kind of price can you put on that?"
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The outfitter has made his living off the wild things in the canyons for years now, but he knows there are some things -- sights, smells, encounters, moments -- that are beyond price.
"Maybe we can take $20 billion worth of gas off that mountain," he says. "But so much of what's up there you won't be able to replace. Ever. When it's gone, it's gone."
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