Interior Secretary Nixes Drilling Leases on Roan Plateau, Thompson Divide

In the twilight of the Obama administration, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to Denver yesterday to announce the adoption of long-range plans to protect the Roan Plateau and the Thompson Divide — two spectacularly scenic and environmentally fragile areas on the Western Slope — from oil and gas drilling. The deals have been years in the works, and despite the uncertainty surrounding President-elect Donald Trump's energy policies, won't be easily undone by a simple regime change.

The compromise announced by Jewell, which involves canceling 25 drilling leases in the Thompson Divide and resolving litigation over energy development on the Roan Plateau, ends efforts to exploit oil and gas resources in areas teeming with wildlife and rare plant species. As we reported in "Raiding the Roan" way back in 2004, energy companies have been salivating over the prospect of tapping into the Roan's rich gas reserves since the early days of the George W.  Bush administration.

In 2008, shortly before Bush left office, the Bureau of Land Management, over strong protests from much of Colorado's congressional delegation, opened up areas on 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 well pads, 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. A settlement agreement, first announced in 2014, canceled numerous leases and designated key areas of the plateau as off-limits to development. The Thompson Divide battle has also raged for years, as locals challenged leases in precious watersheds and roadless areas.

“This resolution strikes the right balance by protecting one of Colorado’s most spectacular places and important watersheds, and ensuring that any future development is done responsibly and held to high standards," said Secretary Jewell yesterday, as a beaming Governor John Hickenlooper looked on.

Given the slow pace of environmental review and other bureaucratic processes within the BLM, it's doubtful the deal that was finally hammered out can be undone by another shift toward the drill-baby-drill mantra in the White House. Economic forces have also lessened the push to drill on remote public lands in recent years; a glut of natural gas from widespread fracking, tapping into reserves previously considered inaccessible, has kept prices low and eased the demand for new drill rigs. These days only 35 percent of leased public lands are actually producing at any given time; with so many leases sitting idle, who needs more?