Garfield County commissioners are backing Terra Energy Partners' proposal to drill up the slopes of the Roan Plateau north of Rulison, but are seeking assurances that the visual impacts of the project to the Colorado River Valley will be minimized.

"I think we do have some concerns about visual impacts, trying to mitigate that," Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said Monday before the commissioners agreed to support Terra's proposal to drill 63 wells from four pads in the Balzac Gulch area.

The work would entail a second phase of development in an area where Terra Energy already is in the middle of drilling 66 wells in the Roan Plateau area. In doing so, it became the first company to drill on Roan Plateau oil and gas leases that were issued in 2008 and later were the subject of a lawsuit and legal settlement. That deal involved the BLM canceling most of the contested leases on the top of the plateau and closing that area to leasing, but keeping leases along the plateau base and slopes in place.

Terra's first-phase drilling involves pre-existing pads closer to the valley floor, but the next phase entails new and higher ones. Kirby Wynn, the county's oil and gas liaison, told commissioners that the highest pad would be slightly more than halfway up the plateau.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said visual impacts were a big thing the agency looked at in lease stipulations for the below-the-rim Roan leases that remained in place. He said lease stipulations allow the BLM to dictate where the pads are located to address concerns such as visibility from Interstate 70.

Stipulations likewise are in place to address visual impacts of roads and pipelines to be built in connection with the project. The phase-two drilling will require about 2.3 miles of new roads and more than five miles of buried gas, oil and/or water lines.

Garfield commissioners are backing the project due to the job and tax-revenue benefits that will result. Jankovsky estimated that the wells could result in a total of about $441 million in gas production.

The federal leases Terra is working to develop also have seasonal, five-month limitations on activities to protect winter big-game habitat. Terra proposes drilling the phase-two wells over two years, which would require a waiver of those limits. Boyd said the BLM has been working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to consider such exceptions for some gas-development projects because of the difficulty of companies completing drilling of all wells on a single pad within seven months. With the timing limits, companies could be forced to move a rig off a pad and have to bring it back later, which also has impacts.

"We want them to get in and get out as soon as they can — just drill out and the big disturbance is over," Boyd said.

Where timing exceptions are made, the BLM looks to ensure other winter drilling wouldn't be occurring in the area so wildlife still would have nearby winter habitat available.

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