More than 242,000 acres in the Vermillion Basin region of northwestern Colorado, considered to hold huge amounts of natural gas, would be off limits to drillers under a proposed Resource Management Plan (RMP), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said last week.

The basin, which is prized for its remoteness and wilderness characteristics, is one of the larger contiguous blocks of public land in northwestern Colorado not currently leased for potential gas and oil development.

"The proposed Little Snake Resource Management Plan presents a very balanced and responsible approach to oil and gas leasing and development," said BLM Colorado Director Helen Hankins. "It reflects the common sense approach of pursuing continued development in areas that are already leased, while protecting areas like the Vermillion that communities enjoy for its back country experience and its signature beauty."

The RMP is to cover nearly two million acres that are managed by the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig, CO. The plan has been written and revised several times; a draft RMP for the Roan Plateau and Vermillion Basin originally was issued in 2007 (see NGI, June 18, 2007).

Three years ago the options proposed in the RMP included a "no leasing" option for Vermillion Basin. The preferred alternative in the draft would have opened the entire basin to leasing, but it required a "highly restrictive" approach to development.

The latest proposal would be released for a 30-day protest period in late July. It provides a framework to guide management decisions on approximately 1.3 million acres of BLM-administered public lands and an additional 1.1 million acres of subsurface mineral estate administered by the Little Snake Field Office in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

Major issues addressed in the proposal include energy and mineral development, special management areas such as lands with wilderness character and Wild and Scenic Rivers, transportation and travel management, and wildlife habitat -- particularly for sage grouse and elk.

A Record of Decision that would detail the final decisions in the RMP is to be issued after resolution of any protests received and a 60-day consistency review by the governor.

Around 90% of the 1.9 million acres covered under the draft RMP still would be open for energy development in some capacity, BLM said. More than one million acres now overseen by BLM's Little Snake Field office -- not in the basin -- currently are leased for gas and oil development, but less than 15% of the leases have been developed, it noted.

Under the draft RMP, a total 242,000 acres in the Vermillion Basin and in wilderness areas would be off limits, according to BLM. Another 70,000 acres, considered prime habitat for the greater sage grouse, would have "severe restrictions" placed on drilling operations. Wyoming officials also on Tuesday issued a sage grouse protection plan that likely is to affect some drilling operations (see related story).

Producers in Colorado would have to submit development plans to drill in the restricted sage grouse habitat areas, and ground disturbance would be limited to only 1% of the acreage held under lease, BLM said.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who is not seeking reelection this year, in 2007 asked federal officials to protect the basin from drilling (see NGI, Aug. 13, 2007). Then-Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, now Interior secretary, was able to convince BLM three years ago to give the state more time to intervene in proposed expanded drilling plans.

Ritter praised BLM's latest revised RMP.

"The Vermillion Basin is a stark, untrammeled landscape of fragile beauty," he said. "It contains just 2% of the high oil and gas potential in the Little Snake management area. But because of the arid conditions that make this basin so spectacular, the impacts of gas development would literally last forever.

"My administration supports the natural gas industry as a mission-critical driver of our New Energy Economy," which is part of the Climate Action Plan he has spearheaded (see NGI, April 26). "But energy development must occur in a way that does not cause irreparable harm to our environment, other natural resources, wildlife or to our citizens and communities. The BLM's decision upholds that spirit and preserves our quality of life."

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