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Court Remands Colorado Drilling Plan to BLM

In a decision in which both sides are claiming victories of sorts, a federal district judge in Denver on June 22 ordered the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to review and revise its drilling plan for the Roan Plateau in western Colorado where one operator has plans to drill thousands of natural gas wells.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger left intact the outstanding leases for operators in the Roan, even though the 10 environmental groups that filed the lawsuit four years ago (see NGI, July 21, 2008) sought to have the leases set aside. Judge Krieger indicated that the issue of the leases went beyond the scope of the case, which was centered on administrative procedures and BLM's alleged failure to follow proper processes in approving the Roan drilling plan.

BLM has the option of appealing the decision. A spokesperson for the BLM Denver office said officials were reviewing the court decision last Monday. It was unknown whether the agency eventually will appeal.

Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. indicated it plans to move forward with its drilling plans once BLM revises the overall plans for the Roan. Barrett has publicly said it wants to drill up to 3,200 gas wells on its leases in the 55,000-acre plateau, which environmentalists have long guarded as a key wildlife, ecological and public landscape area. The fact that the judge left the leases intact was a key factor, a Barrett spokesperson said.

The original lawsuit named as defendants Dirk Kempthorne, who was U.S. Interior Secretary at the time, BLM and two regional BLM officials. The lawsuit sought to have BLM's resource management plan for the plateau set aside and BLM barred from leasing drilling sites on the plateau.

The area in dispute is located on Colorado's Western Slope between Grand Junction and Rifle. BLM in 2008 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 and around the Roan Plateau -- all the area in the federal Roan Plateau Planning Area that is not currently leased for oil and gas operations.

A staff attorney for one of the environmental groups said with Krieger's remand back to BLM, Roan will get a second look and hopefully be protected. He held out the prospect for working with BLM on developing what would be a "more balanced plan" giving Roan added protections.

BLM has contended that prohibiting leasing on top of the plateau and setting the area aside for conservation and recreation would violate the direction of Congress when in 1997 it transferred the Roan Plateau lands to the federal Interior Department for energy development leasing. Further, BLM also argued about the controlled level of development on the plateau, which would be limited to existing road corridors, limiting surface disturbance on the plateau to about 1% (350 acres) of the federal land located there.

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