A balanced development plan is key for the Roan Plateau

By Michael Freeman

On June 22, a U.S. District Court in Denver struck down the Bureau of Land Management’s plan for oil and gas drilling on the Roan Plateau.

Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that BLM failed to consider a more balanced management alternative that would have better protected the Roan’s wildlife, plants and pristine lands.

Her decision also said that BLM had failed to disclose the air pollution that would result from drilling the Roan.

The ruling sends BLM back to the drawing board and gives the agency another chance to protect 86 square miles of some of the most biologically rich public land in Colorado.

In a July 8 Daily Sentinel commentary, State Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, argued that despite the Court’s ruling, BLM should rush to start drilling the Roan. Scott also serves as Colorado chairman of the Rocky Mountain Energy Forum — a project of the American Petroleum Institute. His commentary about Judge Krieger’s ruling is long on oil and gas industry rhetoric and short on the facts.

In striking down the Bush administration plan, the court ruled that BLM violated the law by not considering a more balanced approach to the Roan that had been supported by the overwhelming majority of public comments. Contrary to Scott’s suggestion, Judge Krieger’s ruling also allows BLM to leave much of the Roan Plateau unleased.

Just as important, the decision allows BLM to forbid surface disturbance on the areas it does lease and to require that oil and gas companies access the gas reserves from adjacent lands that are already being developed. The court also ruled that the BLM must grapple with the air pollution resulting from oil and gas development in western Colorado.

In short, the ruling gives the BLM a clear path to make a new decision that allows careful energy development on the Roan, while preserving the top of the plateau and the most sensitive areas around its base. BLM also has the authority to cancel the Bush-era leases as part of developing a new plan.

We should take this opportunity to develop a better plan for a place that really matters. BLM and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program have described the top of the Roan as one of the four most biologically rich places in Colorado, and the other three are already protected as part of the national park system.

The Roan is home to pure strains of native trout, prize deer and elk herds, tens of thousands of acres of wilderness-quality lands and some of the rarest plants in North America. All of these are found in an area that represents only 1.3 percent of the federal lands that have been leased for oil and gas drilling in Colorado.

Protecting this island in a sea of development will help ensure that hikers, mountain bikers, sportsmen and other recreationists still have a place to get away from it all.

The Bush administration plan set aside by Judge Krieger, however, would have turned the Roan into an industrial zone. It would allow companies to drill more than 3,000 wells on top of the plateau, destroy wilderness-quality lands and decimate critical elk and deer winter range around the base. BLM has acknowledged that the Bush-era plan would cause permanent, irreversible damage to these natural resources.

Rep. Scott tries to present the Roan Plateau as a “jobs versus the environment” decision for BLM. He is dead wrong: Sacrificing the Roan for oil and gas drilling will not create new jobs.

The reality is that with the market price of natural gas at historically low levels, energy companies aren’t drilling most of the leases they already have.

Even without the Roan Plateau, more than 4.3 million acres of federal minerals in Colorado are leased by BLM and only about 33 percent of those leases are currently in production. As of September 2011, companies weren’t even using more than 700 of the drilling permits the federal government has issued in Colorado. There’s simply no rush to drill the Roan.

Instead of listening to oil and gas industry backers, BLM should do what ordinary Coloradans want: It should take the time to develop a new, more balanced solution that allows some careful development while protecting one of the places that makes Colorado great.

Michael Freeman is a staff attorney with the Earthjustice Rocky Mountain office in Denver. Earthjustice and a coalition of conservation and wildlife groups challenged the BLM’s plan for drilling on the Roan Plateau.


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