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Colorado's Dems Try Again for Roan Protections

Three of Colorado's Democratic lawmakers introduced federal legislation Thursday to increase the amount of acreage on the Roan Plateau that would be off-limits to energy development.

The legislation is similar to recommendations proposed by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter in March, nearly all of which were rejected by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (see NGI, March 17). The bill calls for phased leasing of federal mineral leases on the plateau and increasing the acreage for areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC), a special area given a higher level of protection, to 39,338 acres. BLM has designated 21,034 acres as ACECs.

"We're laying down this marker and saying this is what the governor wants to do, what the Colorado delegation wants to do," said Rep. John Salazar, whose district includes the Roan Plateau. He introduced the legislation with his brother, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, and Rep. Mark Udall.

The plateau, revered by conservationists as well as natural gas producers, is about 180 miles west of Denver in the heart of the Piceance Basin. It is estimated to hold 9 Tcf of recoverable gas reserves. BLM's management plan for the plateau, which was approved after seven years of work, would allow 193 well pads and 1,570 wells on the public land over 20 years. BLM could begin offering leases on the plateau by late summer.

"The legislation introduced...substantially addresses the same goals reflected in the uniquely Colorado plan I proposed in December," Ritter said. "I am confident that phased leasing will result in a more thoughtful pacing of energy development and far greater revenues to the state over time." He added, "This is Colorado's chance to do this right -- to forge a creative and lasting approach to energy development in this unique area."

The trio of legislators plans to work to find "a vehicle to move this legislation forward," which could include appropriations and budgetary supplement bills, said John Salazar. Ken Salazar added that he hoped Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard would "come on board with this legislation," which he said would be easier to move with his support.

A spokesman for Allard said "there's a lot of pieces to this bill that are acceptable." However, he said Allard was "disappointed" that he was not involved in writing the legislation. "There are just a lot of missed opportunities here for collaboration. We feel like we are brought in for the crash landing and not the takeoff. There are issues that are now prohibitive to supporting the bill that we possibly could have worked out."

Americans for American Energy (AAE), an energy advocacy group based in Colorado, said it would fight the bill's enactment.

"Colorado's a big loser with this," said AAE's Greg Schnacke. The bill, he said, is intended to block drilling on the plateau, which could cost Colorado $1 billion in royalties and lease fees. "The bill is going to effectively delay the leasing of the area well into next year. It is clearly the intention of the sponsors that a new [presidential] administration will pull its support completely" for leasing on the plateau.

Clare Bastable, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club, said several organizations, including the Wilderness Society and the Colorado Environmental Coalition, also oppose the legislation.

The new bill is better than BLM's plan or Ritter's recommendations, said Bastable. However, she said it doesn't go far enough to protect the area from large-scale drilling.

"This legislation in a lot of ways is another drilling plan for the Roan Plateau," said Bastable. "I think the Bush administration has been hell-bent on drilling the Roan Plateau and that has skewed the debate toward drilling. It has left (the Salazars and Udall) with little latitude in which to work. I can see why they introduced the bill they introduced, but ultimately this bill may result in hundreds if not thousands of wells on the Roan Plateau."

Allard and the Salazar brothers last week came together to introduce Senate and House bills to assist the four northwestern counties most affected by Piceance Basin drilling. The measures would allow a trust fund set-aside to clean up a federal Superfund site on the Roan Plateau; the set-aside would be split 50-50 by federal officials and the four counties. None of the money would be directly given to the state. The bill ensures the clean-up of the former Anvil Points facility, which would be paid for entirely from the federal share of the existing fund.

The legislation would jointly split an estimated $88 million that has accumulated to clean up the Anvil Points Superfund site on the former Naval Oil Shale Reserve, which is on the Roan Plateau. Money for the trust has been generated by royalties on oil and gas production in the region. The Anvil Points trust fund, which was enacted under the Transfer Act (Public Law 105-85), now exceeds the estimated cost of cleaning up the reserve. The Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Land Management, which is in control of cleaning up the site, estimates the clean-up will cost $23 million. Another $1.5 million accrues to the fund each month.

If the legislation is enacted, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties would receive about 40% of the funds, while Mesa and Moffat counties would receive 10% each. The counties -- and municipalities and political subdivisions within the counties -- could use the money they receive to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development.

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