Politicking on the Plateau

The debate over gas drilling on the Roan Plateau has become one of the most intriguing and critical environmental battles in the West since the days of Two Forks. The recent acceleration of political maneuvering over the issue deserves close scrutiny, since the outcome will tell us a great deal about who really gets to determine the fate of Colorado’s most precious natural resources.

The Roan is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the state, a haven for black bears, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, rare plants and the world’s purest strain of Colorado River cutthroat trout. But the plateau also sits on an estimated $22 billion worth of natural gas, and thousands of acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management seemed doomed to be leased for gas development when we took a long look at the place three years ago; read all about it here and here.

Yet the shift in Washington’s political winds since the 2006 election have raised the possibility that the plateau may yet escape relatively unscathed. Governor Bill Ritter asked for more time to review the BLM’s plan for leasing, which has been heavily criticized by environmental groups for minimizing the number of wells and roads that will actually result. When the agency balked at Ritter’s request, Senator Ken Salazar stepped in and blocked the appointment of new BLM head James Caswell until the Department of the Interior capitulated. Meanwhile, Ken’s brother John and fellow congressman Mark Udall ran an end-run on the agency, slipping an amendment into the energy bill that would ban drilling on BLM lands on top of the plateau.

The Democrats’ moves so alarmed energy industry leaders —accustomed as they were to getting their way under the Owens regime — that they quickly assembled a pot of lobbying money, under the banner of something called Americans for American Energy, to terminate the Salazar-Udall amendment. Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman was supposed to lead the charge but soon backed off when reporters began questioning the wisdom of an elected official getting in the thick of such a partisan battle.

The Salazar-Udall feint may not survive Senate scrutiny next month. Surprisingly, it’s even been dissed by the editorial poobahs at the Denver Post, who seem to be under the delusion that the BLM plan enjoys widespread support in Garfield County. There are also a variety of interests rubbing their hands in eager anticipation of what all those billions of energy-tax dollars might mean for the public coffers. But amid all the high-minded rhetoric about energy independence and education windfalls and the like, it’s helpful to keep a few points in mind about the Roan:

1.The plateau has escaped development for so long not because of any wilderness designation but because of general inaccessibility. It’s far from pristine — there is already some drilling on the top, on private land — but the BLM plan would add almost 140 miles of new roads over the next few decades and insure its degradation, regardless of what kind of “restoration” the drillers attempt.

2.Some analyses from environmental groups indicate that the so-called bonanza of gas reserves on the Roan, or at least the ability to efficiently access those reserves, has been greatly exaggerated. Even if the BLM’s rosy projections are correct, sucking the gas out of the plateau won’t lead to “energy independence” — or even an appreciable drop in gas prices. In the larger scheme of things, trashing the place will do little but extend an already raging gas industry on the Western Slope.

3. Around thirty years ago, companies such as Exxon and Shell were earnestly proposing turning a huge chunk of western Colorado upside down and cooking the oil shale out of it. Environmentalists pointed out that this was more than slightly insane. But it was the economics and the dubious technology of the plan that ultimately put it to bed. Is the state any more willing to be a national sacrifice area when the next energy crisis rolls around?

4. Although the pro-drilling camp has sought to present the BLM plan as a done deal, it’s actually still taking comments on four “areas of critical environmental concern” on the plateau until early September. Click here for more information. -- Alan Prendergast

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Sean Cronin