Three U.S. congressmen from Colorado, who in the past had worked to block natural gas drilling on the Roan Plateau, are calling for a compromise that would allow phased-in energy development on the Western Slope landmark.

The plateau, located near the energy boomtown Rifle, CO, is estimated to hold 8.9 Tcf of recoverable natural gas, according to the Interior Department. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued a series of draft environmental impact statements and has held several public comment periods, but a final decision on whether to grant leases to explore is not expected until this spring.

Last June BLM's Colorado office recommended opening about 34,000 acres to drilling and protecting 50,000 acres, but environmental groups and lawmakers protested (see NGI, Sept. 17, 2007; Aug. 13, 2007; June 18, 2007).

The stand-off cooled in December when Gov. Bill Ritter, who earlier had opposed drilling on the plateau, called on federal officials and environmental groups to change course (see NGI, Dec. 24, 2007). Among other things, the Democratic governor suggested increasing by 72% the amount of federally protected lands around the plateau, but he also proposed that gas drillers have access to the reserves via narrow corridors. Ritter's proposal would add 15,000 more acres, or a total of 36,000 acres, to wildlife protection zones.

Now Ritter's proposal appears to be gaining traction among other former drilling opponents. Colorado's Sen. Ken Salazar, Rep. John Salazar (his brother) and Rep. Mark Udall -- all Democrats -- said last week they would work together to incorporate some of Ritter's proposals into federal legislation. John Salazar said that if Ritter's proposal "is the best we can do, I think it's a good compromise. We call it a 'win.' He added, "We may not get everything we want, but this is a pretty good compromise."

The proposed legislation, if passed, would funnel more money to Colorado communities affected by the energy boom. The legislation would give the federal government more of the lease revenues from drilling on federal land, but it also would free up surplus funds that now sit in a trust devoted to cleaning up a portion of the Roan. Ken Salazar said the trust fund has at least a $40 million surplus, but under current laws the funds may not be used until the cleanup is certified as completed.

The Roan Plateau is "a very, very special place," said Ken Salazar. "It is the mule deer, the elk, the fish in the streams and the anglers and hunters and tourists who come every year to visit."

The proposed federal legislation would do the following:

In his State of the State address Thursday, Ritter said, "I believe we can reach most of the natural gas resources beneath the Roan, and we can do it through state-of-the-art drilling technology and phased leasing and paced development. And, we can do it while dramatically expanding the acreage that will be off-limits to drilling. This is a uniquely Colorado solution that strikes an important balance -- a balance that will protect our environment and benefit our economy, our local communities and our energy industry."

Golden, CO-based Americans for American Energy (AAE), which backs drilling on the Roan, cautiously welcomed the compromise proposals.

"Of course, the devil will be in the details of this bill," said AAE CEO Greg Schnacke. "It is possible that these guys [the congressmen] will try to do a bait and switch by writing their bill so that no natural gas harvest can actually occur." Schnacke said, "In the end, the winners will be Colorado taxpayers and local governments who will benefit from a huge potential revenue windfall, which our state badly needs."

How Ritter's proposal or the proposed legislation would impact the BLM's decision remains unclear.

"As with any legislation, we follow any new rule that Congress approves and the president signs," BLM spokeswoman Jamie Gardner said.

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