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Battle Over Colorado's Gas-Rich Roan Plateau Heats Up

One of the current hotspots in the drive to bring on new gas supplies from the Rocky Mountains involves the Roan Plateau, which rises 3,000 feet northwest of the town of Rifle, CO, in the mineral-rich Uinta-Piceance Basin.

The oil and gas industry holds that there is a tremendous amount of clean-burning natural gas that can be recovered from federal and private lands in the Roan Plateau -- more than 15 Tcf, which would provide enough domestic energy to heat more than six million homes for 20 years.

However, environmentalist groups such as and the Center for Native Ecosystems claim the Plateau is "a magical place of deep canyons, quiet trout streams, and expansive meadows." said the Plateau is one of the top four biological hotspots in Western Colorado -- the only one without protections. "It is an important hunting, camping, and sightseeing destination that's a backyard playground and sustainable economic treasure for local communities."

The battle is over a November 2004 alternative plan released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that would allow only a portion of the plateau to become available for energy leasing and drilling (see NGI, Nov. 29, 2004). The BLM's favored alternative in the Roan Plateau Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP) and Environment Impact Statement (EIS) would allow as many as 1,324 gas wells to be drilled on federal land over the next 15 to 20 years. BLM estimates gas production by new wells on BLM lands will be 1,523 Bcf. Almost all the drilling would occur at lower elevations where gas leasing and production already is underway.

Approximately half of the 115-square-mile Roan Plateau consists of highlands located above dramatic cliffs, while the remainder of the area consists of lower elevations. The draft plan would defer oil and gas leasing in the highlands (above the cliffs) until 80% of the wells that are predicted for the lower elevations are completed. It would allow approximately 51 wells to be drilled above the cliffs at that time.

The BLM solicited comments on the Draft RMP/EIS for a period that ended on April 11.

Late last week, took on the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) for what it called "discrepancies between its public statements on Roan Plateau and its position as taken in comments submitted to the BLM on the draft plan."

The environmental group said that in public presentations, COGA representatives outlined a plan requiring Best Management Practices and designating Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) that ".would protect sensitive areas on top." However, felt that in COGA's formal comments submitted to the BLM on the draft plan, the oil and gas lobby group took "a much different tact" that industry should be able to proceed immediately with an aggressive drilling regime for the sensitive public lands on Roan Plateau.

"I think is misconstruing the purpose of the industry comments," said Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president and general counsel for COGA. "The industry comments were designed to respond to deficiencies in the Draft RMP."

Wonstolen said that under BLM's internal guidance, the Reasonably Foreseeable Development Scenario (RFD) was supposed to look at what would be the development if essentially the entire area was open with standard lease conditions. "We are basically saying that they didn't do a proper job of developing the RFD because they downplayed the geology and the ability of directional drilling to access the reserves, failing to look at what a full-field development would be like -- which is what an RFD must include," he told NGI. "We also think that they did not look at the socioeconomic benefits that would come from developing 80% of the gas as opposed to 40% of the gas.

"In terms of critiquing the draft RMP, which is what these comments are for, it was incumbent on us to put forward a plan that would meet the [guidance] on what an RFD looks like," Wonstolen added. "That's what these comments were designed to do and it is more than a bit ironic that a group called Save the Roan Plateau -- which believes that their should be no wells on top of the plateau -- is now calling the industry extremists. The shoe is on the other foot as far as I am concerned."

The Wilderness Society's Steve Smith said the largest concern has to do with the developing the top of the Plateau. "Our campaign all along has noted that oil and gas development on top of Roan Plateau would likely result in 2,800 wells or more, spread across the landscape. Industry representatives -- and some BLM officials -- called this an exaggeration and pledged limited development, with infrastructure blended into the landscape. Now industry is acknowledging what citizens have been saying all along, development atop Roan Plateau will turn the area into an industrial zone. Thousands of gas wells do not simply 'blend in' regardless of what color they are painted."

Community groups, conservationists, local businesses, and area governments have long supported a compromise plan that would allow for vast amounts of natural gas to be developed from the Roan Plateau Planning Area and still protect the area's best natural and ecological features.

"There is a solution for the Roan Plateau, and it has already won the endorsement of an unprecedented number of citizens, interest groups, and communities," said Bob Millette with the Roaring Fork Group of the Sierra Club. "The Community Alternative would allow industry to produce large quantities of gas from the Planning Area, boosting industry profits past their already record rates, while also helping to supply consumers with the energy that they need. Most importantly, it would honor what local communities have overwhelmingly supported all along -- protection of the top of the Plateau and of the area's sensitive habitats."

The Roan Plateau has long been recognized for its mineral resources, with 56,238 acres set aside as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve until 1997, when an Act of Congress transferred management to the BLM Glenwood Springs Field Office for the purpose of leasing land for natural gas production.

Wonstolen said that the industry is "very opposed" to deferred leasing on the top. "We think it is illegal to begin with. That Act said lease on the date of enactment or as soon thereafter as practical, doesn't mean waiting 18 years," he said. "That doesn't meet the requirements of the Transfer Act. We expect that BLM is going to comply with the law and leasing will begin as soon as we get the filed RMP approved...and that probably means after litigation. Why should this plan be any different than every other RMP that is issued in the Rocky Mountain West.

"I think the 18-year plan got like 2% of the gas from up there in 20 years, that is just unacceptable," Wonstolen said. "We are putting forward what an RFD would look like if there were no constraints on leasing. That would get about 80% of the gas and you can see the socioeconomic benefits that would go along with that. More than likely, there will be some plan somewhere in between those, but it is hard to say what it will look like right now."

Now that the comment period is finished, a consulting firm hired by BLM will review and organize the comments. After about five to six weeks, the BLM will respond to the comments and possibly change or modify the alternatives that were proposed in the draft RMP.

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