SILT, Colo. - As the Roan Plateau loomed in the distance, the Bureau of Land Management hosted an event at its Silt field office Wednesday to begin taking public input on a new study of gas drilling on the plateau, a largely pristine piece of ground long coveted by drilling companies, environmentalists and sportsmen alike.
The new study was initiated by a Colorado District Court decision issued in June of last year, when Judge Marcia Krieger sided with a coalition of environmental groups that had sued the BLM and several gas companies with leases to drill on the Roan.
The environmentalists, including The Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale, the Sierra Club, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and seven other groups, argued that the BLM's 2008 plan to manage the Roan's resources violated several federal environmental laws.
The judge agreed and ordered a new study, which the BLM is initiating now.
"The scoping period is really meant to give the public a chance to voice concerns about what we should focus on, and about what issues we need to address," said David Boyd, Director of Public Affairs for the BLM in northwest Colorado.
After the close of the scoping period on March 30, Boyd said, the BLM will begin to consider what management approaches to evaluate in its new study.
One approach sure to be on the agenda is the so-called "citizens alternative," which would allow only directional drilling from the sides of the plateau, and would ban any surface disturbance of the top by gas companies.
In her 2012 opinion, Judge Krieger ruled that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately consider that option.
Krieger also ruled that the BLM failed to consider the cumulative air quality and ozone impacts of allowing drilling on the Roan, in combination with all the adjacent drilling already taking place in western Colorado.
Following Krieger's decision, the BLM suspended gas leases on and around the plateau held by four companies: Bill Barrett Corporation, Oxy USA, WPX Energy and Antero Resources, which is now Ursa Energy.
Bill Barrett Corporation has appealed Krieger's ruling, and that appeal is now pending.
Among the 30 people who attended the scoping meeting Wednesday was Michael Freeman, an attorney for the legal advocacy group Earthjustice who represented the coalition of environmental groups in their successful lawsuit against the BLM and the gas companies.
"We are happy to see the agency going back to the drawing board, and we want a plan that gives the Roan the protection it deserves. We want the area at the base left alone, and we want no surface disturbance on the top of the Roan Plateau," he said.
Susan Alvillar, a spokeswoman for WPX energy, said her company "would like to go ahead and develop our leases. We paid $25 million for them. But in the meantime we'll participate fully in the process."
WPX owns leases below the rim of the plateau, on the south facing slope just north of Interstate 70.
"They are adjacent to places where we've already drilled," said Alvillar. "We think it makes sense to drill next door."
For anyone involved in prior clashes over drilling on the Roan, the opposing positions of Freeman and Alvillar will evoke familiar themes.
The current fight over the plateau began in 2004, and prompted the submission of more than 100,000 public comments over the next three years.
In 2008, the sale of 54,631 gas leases on and around the plateau generated $113.9 million, the most of any oil and gas lease sale in the lower 48 states.
By then, however, the coalition of environmental groups had already filed suit in an attempt to invalidate the BLM's Roan Plateau Resource Management Plan.
In the five years since 2008, as the lawsuit has wound its way through the court system, much was changing about the status of the Roan and its resources.
Several plant and animal species with habitat on the Roan Plateau have recently been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, including the sage grouse, the Yampah River cutthroat trout, and a plant called the Parachute penstemon.
There are also more than 19,000 acres with what the BLM calls "wilderness characteristics," meaning that they may qualify for designation under the federal Wilderness Act, and many miles of waterways that may be eligible for "Wild and Scenic" status under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Yet the Roan is also rich in gas resources, making it a prize for the gas companies that own leases there. It's estimated to hold about 8.9 trillion cubic feet of federal natural gas, according to the BLM.