The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) split the baby on the controversial question of drilling on the Roan Plateau in Colorado with a decision, issued last Friday, allowing carefully programmed drilling on less than half, or about 34,000 acres, of the plateau area. The decision set aside about 17,000 acres with the restriction of no surface occupancy and proposed that the ban be extended to another 21,000 acres in special areas it has labeled as environmentally critical.

The record of decision (ROD) issued Friday encompassed 70% of the 73,602 acres in the Roan Plateau planning area of the gas-rich Uinta-Piceance Basin, or about 51,500 acres, of which 17,336 acres were restricted to no surface occupancy or no surface disturbance.

Jamie Connell, Glenwood Springs BLM field manager, said the decision sanctions "tightly controlled energy development on top of the plateau." It would require using the latest directional drilling technology in a "staged, right-by-ridge approach, with well pads no closer than ½ mile apart." Surface disturbance on the top of the plateau is limited to approximately 1% of the total acres at any one time.

Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said his membership was not as concerned with the areas that are off limits as they are with the longer time it will take to develop the resources with the staged drilling plan. "We all knew there were certain beautiful areas up there that we would not be able to develop, and we didn't ask to develop them. But, it's the amount of time it would take to get in and out of certain drilling programs. If it takes decades, there is the impact on the time value of money. It will decrease the bonus bids for the leases. It could devalue the leases by as much as a half a billion dollars."

Schnacke said the industry believes there is as much as 4-6 Tcf of recoverable reserves in the area, but they won't know exactly until they get in there. "Somebody will bid on it, but some will look at other opportunities." Sportsmen who have lobbied heavily to restrict the drilling may not realize it, but with the timetable they're setting "we're going to be working there a lot longer."

The BLM noted that its plan "provides critical protections for fish and wildlife habitat, plants, special places, viewsheds and traditional recreation and other uses of the plateau."

In the second part of the planning area encompassing four "areas of critical environmental concern" totaling 21,034 acres, BLM also is proposing there be no surface disturbance. The agency has set 60 days for comments on the critical areas plan.

In spite of its selective approach to development, the plan "allows more than 90% of the federal natural gas in the planning area to be recovered," according to the BLM. Connell said the ROD was crafted through collaboration among the BLM and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, the cities of Glenwood Springs and Rifle and the town of Parachute.

The BLM released its draft resource management plan (RMP) in September 2006, which included 1,570 mainly gas wells that would be authorized on 193 well pads over a 20-year period. Energy drillers would be allowed to drill 210 wells on 13 pads on top of the plateau. At the time the plan was released, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the plan was overly restrictive and would probably backfire on the agency (see Daily GPI, Sept. 8, 2006).

In response to Friday's BLM announcement, Marc Smith, executive director of Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said his organization is pleased that "after a decade-long open and public process in which all stakeholders were given a seat at the table, the BLM is ready to allow limited and balanced energy development on Colorado's Naval Oil Shale Reserves (NOSR) 1 and 3, which are located on a tiny portion of the Roan Plateau. Conservatively, federal royalties and bonus bids from energy development on the NOSRs would provide $3.5 billion to Garfield County and the state of Colorado."

Political opposition to oil and gas development has been continuing. In May 2007, U.S. Reps. John Salazar (D-CO) and Mark Udall (D-CO) proposed an amendment to the Department of Interior's 2008 spending bill that would delay drilling on top of the Roan Plateau. On Friday, Udall characterized the BLM's ruling as another instance of the federal government's "rush to make the West Slope and other parts of the Rocky Mountain region a pin cushion of drilling rigs. This 'compromise' plan was not fully vetted with the public -- which did not see this plan until after the close of comments -- and they have no chance to comment on it now. It also fails to acknowledge the strong views of many local communities and sportsmen who asked that there be no drilling on the top."

On Friday, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter decried the BLM's decision to move forward with energy development of the plateau. On June 7 the BLM had turned down Ritter's request for 120 additional days to evaluate the draft Roan Plateau Resource Management Plan. Ritter said he will continue to evaluate all options for deferring the leasing of the plateau.

A second ROD covering the 21,034 acres in environmentally critical areas will be issued following a 60-day public comment period that ends Aug. 10.

Copies of the ROD, the proposed critical areas plan and additional information can be found at http://www.blm.gov/rmp/co/roanplateau/.

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