Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger threw yet another hurdle in the way of energy companies' efforts to begin widespread drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau. The plan to tap into vast natural gas reserves in one of the state's wildest places has been subject to considerable monkey-wrenching since the administration of George W. Bush first tried to put the Roan on a fast track to development nearly a decade ago.
As detailed in our 2004 feature "Raiding the Roan," the plateau is a mix of private and Bureau of Land Management land that, despite any official wilderness protection, has remained one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state, a haven for black bears and bald eagles, rare plants and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout. But the Western Slope gas boom of the past decade has brought wellpads marching to the base of the plateau and put pressure on the BLM to lease tracts on the top.
After months of intense political maneuvering by environmental groups, local tourism interests and prominent state Democrats -- including then-Governor Bill Ritter and then-Senator Ken Salazar, both of whom endorsed a community-based proposal that would have left much of the plateau undisturbed -- the Bush-era BLM leadership plunged ahead with a lease auction just months before the 2008 election. The legality of that process has been under fire in federal court ever since.
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Judge Krieger's decision sends the BLM -- now under the command of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who's put the brakes on a number of Bush-era decisions but stayed out of this fray for the most part -- back to its room to do more study on the environmental impacts of drilling the Roan and re-examine alternative approaches that the judge doesn't think got sufficient consideration the first time around.
That buys more time for the plateau's defenders -- and may, in the long run, result in a new emphasis on directional drilling that will do less damage to the plateau's surface. The leases haven't been revoked, but the BLM is going to have to take another look at what's at stake. And the Roan is certainly the kind of place that deserves a second look, and a third, before you mess with it.