Conservation orgs ask BLM to cancel leases atop Roan Plateau

Posted: Apr 1, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E
Roan Plateau

Environmental groups are urging the Bureau of Land Management to forbid drilling on western Colorado's Roan Plateau as the agency goes back to the drawing board and re-evaluates its approach to energy development in the region.

Earthjustice submitted a 49-page comment letter to BLM today as part of a coalition of 12 conservation groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society urging the agency to cancel more than 20 leases issued in 2008 on federal land in the region.

And in separate comments also submitted today by Sportsmen for the Roan Plateau, which includes groups like Trout Unlimited, they ask BLM to reject any drilling proposals that disturb big-game winter habitat at the base of the plateau and in any area streams containing native Colorado River cutthroat trout.

Both sets of comments ask BLM to forbid almost all proposed drilling at the top of the Roan Plateau, which is regarded by environmentalists and sporting groups as one of the most important and unspoiled wild areas in the state.

"The Roan Plateau is a unique oasis of fish and wildlife habitat that is surrounded by more and more oil and gas drilling," said Bob Meulengracht with Trout Unlimited. "Rare, genetically pure cutthroat trout thrive in small streams that cut across the top of the Roan. Surely we can maintain these kinds of treasures so my children and their children can experience the thrill of casting a line in waters for fish whose genetics date back centuries."

The scoping comments are the first step after BLM's announcement in January that it would reopen, and perhaps amend, the resource management plan (RMP) it finalized in 2007 that helped clear the way for potentially thousands of oil and natural gas wells in the plateau region. A federal judge ruled last year that BLM failed to fully evaluate the impacts of drilling in the pristine region (Greenwire, Jan. 25).

The agency plans to conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) that "will address deficiencies" in the original analysis by considering a wider range of alternatives, including a proposal supported by some local government leaders that would reduce the number of new wells.

The supplemental EIS will also take a much more detailed look at cumulative impacts to the region's air quality if thousands of wells are eventually drilled, with a special focus on ground-level ozone pollution levels in the region, according to BLM.

The deadline is tomorrow to submit comments on the new supplemental EIS.

BLM's actions are primarily in response to the June 2012 ruling by U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger in Denver that concluded the agency failed to properly analyze the potential environmental impacts of drilling in one of the state's most sensitive landscapes. The ruling was the result of a federal lawsuit filed in 2008 by a coalition of 10 environmental groups challenging the Roan Plateau RMP and BLM's environmental analysis.

The 10 plaintiffs in the 2008 lawsuit -- including Trout Unlimited, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation -- and others were represented in the comments submitted today asking BLM to cancel all leases on federal land in and at the base of the plateau.

One of the lessees, Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp., plans to drill as many as 3,200 natural gas wells atop the 55,000-acre plateau.

"We're glad the BLM is going back to the drawing board," said Mike Freeman, a staff attorney with Earthjustice in Denver who represented the 10 environmental groups in the lawsuit.

The comments submitted by Earthjustice on behalf of the coalition includes a so-called conservation alternative that would require companies to access natural gas atop the Roan from private land on the plateau's southern edge, and no new well pads, roads or infrastructure would be allowed on federal land.

"The agency now has a fresh chance to get this right and protect a unique Colorado landscape," Freeman said.

A complicated issue

A BLM spokesman in Denver did not respond to requests for comment.

It's unclear how BLM's decision will affect Bill Barrett's long-standing plans to drill atop the plateau. The company, which had intervened in the 2008 lawsuit, has appealed Krieger's decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which is still pending.

Jim Felton, a company spokesman in Denver, could not be reached for comment.

The coalition of conservation groups that initiated the 2008 lawsuit is being represented by Earthjustice and has filed a cross-appeal, Freeman said.

BLM's decision to re-evaluate the Roan Plateau RMP is the latest chapter in the saga over how to manage the pristine region.

Rising 3,500 feet above the Colorado River Valley, the Roan Plateau and surrounding lands are estimated to hold more than 15 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas resources on federal, state and private lands, according to BLM.

BLM's planning area that is the focus of the Roan Plateau RMP covers more than 73,000 acres of surface and subsurface area estimated to hold about 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Of that planning area, about 34,000 acres is located on top of the plateau where Bill Barrett wants to drill. That area is estimated to hold 4.2 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, according to BLM, while the remaining 38,000 acres below the rim contains an estimated 4.7 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Krieger acknowledged in her ruling last year that the issue is a very complicated one. Indeed, the plateau in the 1920s was "set aside as Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves in order to provide a ready source of fuel in cases of war or national emergency." Congress in 1997 ordered the Energy Department to transfer the plateau lands in question to the Interior Department and ordered Interior to lease them for energy development in accordance with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

But environmentalists have long argued that drilling atop the Roan Plateau and the sensitive areas at its base could have devastating consequences to wildlife, including elk, mule deer and native cutthroat trout. Sporting groups are particularly worried that drilling activities would sever migratory routes for mule deer to move between the Roan Plateau and the Piceance Basin to the north.

"The proposals detailed by the conservation community allow companies access to significant natural gas deposits without sacrificing important habitats that offer their own key economic contributions through hunting, fishing and recreation," said Michael Saul, a National Wildlife Federation attorney.

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