The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has granted the state of Colorado more time to study and comment on the agency's resource management plan (RMP) for the Roan Plateau, an area known for its spectacular scenery and abundant natural gas.

In June, the BLM issued a record of decision that allowed carefully programmed drilling on 34,000 acres of the plateau, less than half of its upper reaches (see NGI, June 18). The BLM was ready to more forward with lease sales for the area, but recently elected Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter requested more time to review the plan to determine if it was "responsible and will allow us to move forward in a thoughtful, balanced way."

The BLM rebuffed Ritter's request for an additional comment period. However, with some maneuvering, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar was able to convince BLM to acquiesce.

Salazar announced that he would lift his "hold" on BLM director-nominee James Caswell if the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, agreed to Salazar's request for a 120-day extension of time for the state to review and comment on the RMP. Late Friday, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne contacted Salazar and gave his commitment to ensure that the state would have a "full opportunity" to review and comment on the plan.

Colorado will take the additional time "to have questions answered that we have with respect to where the oil and gas wells are going to be located, as well as with respect to the districting which they have proposed to move forward with on the development of the five different watersheds on top of the Roan Plateau," said Salazar.

The four-month extension that holds off drilling could be extended indefinitely, depending on the progress of an energy bill pending in the U.S. Congress. There is a provision in the House version of the energy bill passed a week ago that would bar drilling on federal lands atop the Roan Plateau. That provision is not in the Senate version, however, so it's not clear whether or not it would be included in a conference compromise, if there is one. There are considerable differences in the two versions of the bill which conferees will be attempting to merge when Congress returns in the fall.

"We are figuring out what our next step will be," Colorado BLM spokesperson Jim Sample told NGI. BLM's Tom Gorey told NGI that many factors go into a decision to extend comment periods. In this case, he said, "it has a lot to do with the issue and the nature of what's going on."

Natural gas developers are not pleased with the restrictive nature of the Roan Plateau RMP, nor are they pleased with the political climate now that Ritter, a Democrat, is in charge.

"Sanity has gone out of the energy debate," Greg Schnacke, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told NGI. A huge "upsurge in funding coming from out-of-state anti-resource development groups" is coming into Colorado, and the messages are making it more difficult to develop domestic energy all over the country.

Steve Smith with The Wilderness Society (TWS) told NGI that he has "a lot of confidence in the technological ability of the gas industry; that as technology gets better and better, there will be less and less environmental impact. TWS does not want to see drilling halted but would prefer to see companies develop the lease acreage that is currently sitting idle and hold off on areas like the Roan Plateau until technology has improved.

"In Garfield County [CO] seven years ago there was no directional drilling, and now every company is doing it," said Smith. He said TWS would prefer to see the Roan Plateau drilling postponed until the gas drillers can develop the backlog of permitted leases. By the energy industry's own estimate, said Smith, the backlog could last a decade.

"We can be slow and sensitive; we can have an opportunity to do our [technological] best in developing the Roan in a environmentally sensitive fashion," Smith added.

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