Ten environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver in a last-ditch effort to block new natural gas leasing on Colorado's Roan Plateau until federal officials evaluate alternative ways to develop the region's energy resources.

The lawsuit names as defendants U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and two regional BLM officials. The lawsuit is asking that BLM's resource management plan (RMP) for the plateau be set aside and that BLM be barred from leasing drilling sites on the plateau on Aug. 14 as scheduled (see NGI, June 16).

In related news, gas leases sold in 2006 on about 63,000 acres of endangered black-foot ferret habitat in the Wolf Creek area of northwestern Colorado have been voided by the BLM appeals board.

The Roan Plateau area in dispute is located on Colorado's Western Slope between Grand Junction and Rifle. BLM in June said 46 parcels -- about 73,552 acres of federally owned land in Garfield and Gunnison counties -- would be auctioned for oil and natural gas drilling. The auction would include 31 parcels, or 55,186 acres, on top of the Roan Plateau and around the sides -- all the area in the federal Roan Plateau Planning Area that is not currently leased for oil and gas operations.

Drilling supporters say the region could bring not only new energy supplies but millions of dollars to the state's tax base and the creation of thousands of jobs. Those opposed, including Gov. Bill Ritter and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, warn that unfettered development of the Roan's upper reaches would harm the region, which is a favorite for wildlife enthusiasts.

According to BLM's RMP, the drilling plan would allow only 1% of the land on top of the plateau to be disturbed at any one time. "Leases on top of the plateau will require...phased, ridge-by-ridge development, in which only one operator conducts operations on behalf of all lessees," BLM stated in June. "This allows BLM to exert tight control over oil and gas development."

However, the lawsuit charges federal officials with not adequately studying the potential impact of new drilling on air quality and wildlife habitat.

BLM officials in Denver said they could not comment because of the pending litigation. However, Ken Wonstolen, legal counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said, "The public is being sold on this idea that if we slow down oil and gas development, that would allow renewable energy to take hold and we would soon wake up to this rosy renewable energy future. That totally ignores the scale of our energy economy and the time it would take to displace" oil and natural gas.

The groups that filed the lawsuit said BLM "ignored federal law and failed to properly consider development alternatives in promoting industrial gas drilling" on the Roan Plateau.

Steve Torbit, regional director of the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF), which is part of the lawsuit, said the BLM had "repeatedly rejected" requests "to consider options that would allow the natural gas to be developed" while protecting the region's natural resources. "It's too bad Coloradans have to go to court to protect its wildlife heritage from this agency's mindless devotion to industry's demands."

In addition to the NWF, plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Center for Native Ecosystems, Rock the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and Wilderness Workshop.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver, who is vice chair of the House Energy Committee, said she supported the lawsuit.

"I believe we can all agree that there are certain places that are spectacular enough to warrant protection from drilling," DeGette stated. "The Roan Plateau is one of those places, one of Colorado's crown jewels in fact, and I hope the court grants an injunction before the drill rigs start rolling in." DeGette has introduced a bill that would set aside portions of the Roan Plateau as a federally designated wilderness area.

In regard to the black-foot ferret habitat in the Wolf Creek area, the Interior Board of Land Appeals overturned BLM's May 2006 lease sale after ruling that the federal agency had not followed appropriate procedures for public consultation. At the time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had requested that the ferret habitat, located on about 20 parcels within the area that was offered in the lease sale, be excluded. The appeals board ruling said BLM had not adequately explained why it rejected FWS's views.

BLM spokesman Steven Hall said the agency would review the appeals board's decision to determine the next step. However, he said BLM officials believed the ruling "was based on procedures." Further analysis and consultation with other federal agencies may be needed, he said.

BLM's Colorado State Office reported in May 2006 that it sold 148 parcels (of 171 offered) in the quarterly oil and gas lease sale, or about 154,903 acres out of the 192,334 acres of public lands offered. The lease sale earned $6.828 million in proceeds. Many of the parcels offered within the Wolf Creek Management Area where the ferret was being reintroduced did not receive bids, BLM noted at the time.

However, following the sale, an appeal was filed by the Center for Native Ecosystems, WildEarth Guardians and the Wilderness Society.

"Many people have worked very hard to restore the ferret to Colorado, but even our most endangered wildlife has been offered up by the BLM in the rush to drill," said Erin Robertson, senior biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems. "Now the BLM must reconsider before allowing the home of Colorado's only black-footed ferrets to become a well field."

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