Rethinking the Roan Plateau

We at The Daily Sentinel were never thrilled with the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to allow natural gas leasing and drilling on the 35,000 acres of federal lands atop the Roan Plateau.

However, as it became clear that was going to be the decision, we gave credit to the BLM for crafting a drilling plan that went a long way toward protecting critical biological and recreational resources on top of the Roan.

But that plan was premised on the notion that, whichever company leased the Roan, it would probably drill just over 200 gas wells there during the next 20 years.

Turns out the BLM underestimated just a tad. The actual number of wells could be 15 times that.

Bill Barrett Resources, the company that now holds the rights to the Roan leases, said in official documents this summer that it may drill as many as 3,000 wells on top of the Roan Plateau. More recently, it suggested in another document that it plans to complete that drilling in as little as 20 years.

While advanced technology would allow the company to drill multiple wells from the same well pad, that’s still a massive increase in wells and well pads over what the BLM contemplated when it released its environmental study two years ago.

The BLM recognized the unique biology of the Roan Plateau, which has been called one of the four richest areas in Colorado for rare plants and wildlife. Those rare life forms include one of the most genetically pure strains of Colorado River cutthroat trout that exists and the Parachute penstemon, a flowering plant.

In addition, the Roan is home to a spectacular waterfall and important deer and elk herds.

A coalition of environmental and sportsmen’s groups sued the BLM this year to overturn the Roan leases, claiming the agency didn’t adequately assess the potential environmental impacts from the leasing.

Negotiations among those environmental groups, the BLM and Bill Barrett are continuing in an effort to settle the lawsuit. But so far they haven’t yielded an agreement.

However, Barrett’s revelation of the number of wells it might drill has provided powerful new ammunition for the conservationists’ argument that the BLM didn’t adequately evaluate the potential environmental impacts.

We hope the court will direct the Department of Interior to cancel the Roan leases, refund the lease money and consider technological changes that would allow the industry to extract the bulk of the natural gas. Environmentalist contend that, using 2007 technology, the vast majority of the gas resources underlying the Roan can be extracted without disturbing the top.

One of the last undisturbed areas in a sea of drilling north of the Colorado River shouldn’t be turned into an industrialized zone. Two hundred wells might not do that, but 3,000 wells would.


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