BLM drops drilling proposal for Vermillion Basin near Craig

Gov. Bill Ritter and environmental and citizen groups are praising the Bureau of Land Management’s reversal of an earlier proposal to allow oil and gas development in the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin northwest of Craig.

However, a Moffat County commissioner lamented the dropping of what he said was a reasonable approach to drilling there, collaboratively developed by numerous agencies.

“We wanted to see it leased, and we wanted to see it developed, but we wanted to see it developed right,” Commissioner Tom Gray said.

The BLM said Tuesday that protection of the basin from drilling would be included in the upcoming resource management plan proposal for its Little Snake Field Office. That plan would continue allowing oil and gas development on most lands and for most minerals managed by the office.

The BLM said the Vermillion Basin is one of the larger contiguous blocks of public land not already leased for oil and gas development in northwestern Colorado.

“We’re really, really excited by this decision,” said Soren Jespersen, northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator for the Wilderness Society.

Ritter said in a prepared statement that the arid conditions that make the basin so spectacular would result in any gas development impacts lasting forever.

“My administration supports the natural gas industry as a mission-critical driver of our New Energy Economy. But energy development must occur in a way that does not cause irreparable harm to our environment, other natural resources, wildlife or to our citizens and communities. The BLM’s decision upholds that spirit and preserves our quality of life,” Ritter said.

The BLM’s preferred draft proposal for the Vermillion Basin would have opened the entire basin to drilling under a restrictive approach minimizing surface disturbance to 1 percent of the basin at any one time. The BLM applied that same restriction in 2008 in leasing the Roan Plateau near Rifle. Conservation groups are challenging those leases in court.

The Obama administration is continuing to defend the Roan leases issued under the Bush administration. The draft Vermillion proposal was released in 2007, during the Bush era.

Said Jespersen, “Obviously, this is an important step back from that highly skewed plan, and it corrects some of the oversights that occurred under the previous administration.”

Gray said the BLM’s change of heart resulted from “just simply politics” due to a change in administration.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association industry group, said Tuesday of the proposal, “Creating consensus among Northwest Colorado’s diverse stakeholders required collaboration, consensus and clear vision. Today that clear vision was blinded by Washington politics.”

BLM spokesman David Boyd said such decisions are something that all levels of land management officials look at, “from the field all the way up.” He said a wide range of alternatives is on the table in doing resource management plans, and it’s not unusual to see changes along the way.

BLM Colorado director Helen Hankins said in a news release the proposal “reflects the common-sense approach of pursuing continued development in areas that are already leased, while protecting areas like the Vermillion that communities enjoy for its backcountry experience and its signature beauty.”

More than 1 million acres are now leased for oil and gas within the Little Snake Field Office’s jurisdiction, and less than 15 percent of those leases have been developed.

The proposal is expected to be released in late July and will be subject to a public protest period and opportunity for review by the governor’s office before a final decision is made.

Gray said the BLM’s proposal would cost Moffat County millions of dollars in revenues.

Boyd said there’s no specific estimate of natural gas reserves for the Vermillion Basin, but it’s part of a larger, 1.9-million-acre area thought to contain 9.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That compares to an estimate of 8.9 trillion cubic feet for just the 74,000 acres in the BLM planning area on and around the Roan Plateau.


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