Six years after the drill-baby-drill crusaders of the Bush administration targeted one of Colorado's most ecologically unique places for widespread energy leases, a surprisingly reasonable compromise has been hammered out over the fate of the Roan Plateau. The deal is being praised by state and federal officials as well as environmental and sportsmen groups -- and at least tolerated by oil-and-gas interests as a viable alternative to what had become a protracted and seemingly hopeless legal deadlock.
The lesson here? Fiats from Washington that fail to take into account community concerns about long-term economic and environmental impacts are bound to breed lawsuits and impasse. It takes some local buy-in to get to what Governor John Hickenlooper describes as "a productive path forward.... It really is the Colorado way."
Sprawling over 53,000 acres to the north of the Colorado River, from Rifle to Parachute, the Roan is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state. It also happens to sit on an estimated seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Energy companies have been salivating over the Roan's prospects since the first term of George W. Bush. But, as pointed out in my 2004 feature "Raiding the Roan," the plateau, while never designated as wilderness, has become the most prominent refuge on the Western Slope for black bears and eagles, rare plants and toads, and the world's purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout.
In 2008, the Bureau of Land Management, over strong protests from much of Colorado's congressional delegation, opened up much of the top of the plateau to gas leases. The BLM's plan projected up to 1,500 wells over the next twenty years, but other sources estimated that as many as 4,000 wells could be drilled. Hunters, outfitters, tourism interests and environmental activists feared that the impacts of so much industrial activity, including new roads and clearing vast areas for wellpads, would be devastating to wildlife habitat.
Legal and administrative challenges to the BLM's plan -- notably, litigation brought by Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation and others, represented by Earthjustice and Western Resource Advocates -- kept the leases tied up in court for years. The settlement agreement announced late last week was the result of stakeholders finally having had their fill of stalemate.
The arrangement calls for canceling seventeen of the nineteen leases issued on the plateau itself in 2008. Around $47.6 million in bonus bids and annual fees will be refunded to the original leaseholder, the Bill Barrett Corporation. The two remaining leases for the top and a dozen leases at the base of the plateau will remain.
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The Roan already has some leases on private land, so it's not like some pristine wilderness is being defiled by limited gas development on BLM parcels. What the deal does do, though, is protect the most crucial watersheds on the plateau, leaving critical habitat undisturbed. The energy companies can still take a shot at the gas reserves under the plateau -- but they'll have to do it, for the most part, with horizontal drilling methods from the base. Since three-fourths of the surrounding Piceance Basin is already available for leasing, it's hardly a significant blow to the industry as a whole.
The deal won't please everyone, of course. But it represents a step toward progress and preservation at once, and a kind of legacy for the political delegation that labored to bring it about -- particularly for Senator Mark Udall, in the waning days of his time in office. In a press release, Udall hailed the compromise as a "Colorado-based solution," noting, "I have fought for a balanced solution to the Roan Plateau since my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, and this agreement underscores how Coloradans truly are rugged collaborators."