Environmentalists and energy industry advocates are generally praising a Roan Plateau plan by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who Thursday called on federal officials to compromise in their plans for the northwestern landmark. Ritter wants to increase the federally protected lands around the Roan by 72%, but he also wants natural gas drillers to have access via narrow corridors.

Ritter’s announcement is the latest turn in the saga over whether to allow drilling on the plateau, which sprawls for miles along the Western Slope in an area treasured by outdoor enthusiasts for its wildlife and by producers for its gas reserves. Politicians, environmental groups and the energy industry have been in a tug of war over about 52,000 acres of the 70,000-acre U.S. Naval Oil Shale Reserves on the plateau for years (see NGI, Oct. 22; Sept. 17; Nov. 29, 2004).

The reserves were designated in 1916 by the Wilson administration as a back-up source of oil for navy ships. However, extracting oil from the shale formations proved too expensive, and in 1997 Congress transferred the reserves to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which was charged with leasing the area as soon as practically possible.

Following a series of draft environmental impact statements and public comment periods, BLM still has not made a final decision on whether to grant leases in the region. However, in June the federal agency’s Colorado office recommended opening about 34,000 acres to drilling, putting about 50,000 acres off limits (see NGI, June 18). The decision was met with protests on both sides. Some wanted drilling banned altogether; others called for differing plans that ranged from all-out drilling to limited development.

Enter the Democratic governor.

“I’m confident we’re making progress on a uniquely Colorado solution,” Ritter said.

There is no guarantee that Ritter’s proposal will be endorsed by the BLM. He was rebuffed by the BLM when he asked for a complete review of the plan, but U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado persuaded BLM in August to allow his staff 120 days to study it (see NGI, Aug. 13).

Even though the extension allowed by BLM is now over, Ritter said Thursday his administration is continuing to have a “series of productive and encouraging conversations” with BLM.

The specifics of Ritter’s plan were not publicly disclosed. However, Ritter has asked BLM to consider changing the way it leases land on the plateau. Under Ritter’s proposal, small parcels of land on the plateau would be immediately accessible to drillers, which would allow producers to access gas supplies sooner. The idea is that producers would be willing to pay more for the leases to access the reserves, and the state would gain revenue faster.

BLM’s plan would allow producers to buy leasing rights, but they might not be allowed access to some leaseholds for 10 years or more. That plan, said Ritter, could reduce the amount of money producers would be willing to spend — at no benefit to the state.

The plan was endorsed by State Sen. Josh Penry, who has been a strong advocate of opening the plateau to drillers.

“When you strip away all the politics and all the partisan grandstanding that’s been going on in Washington, the governor finally came around to making the right call on the Roan and he deserves credit for it,” said Penry.

State BLM chief Sally Wisely said the discussions with Ritter would continue.

“I believe we can recover the area’s natural gas resources in an environmentally sensitive manner,” said Wisely, “so as to meet the nation’s energy needs and generate revenue for the people of Colorado.”

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