BLM and Garco team up to delay gas leasing atop the Roan Plateau
The Bureau of Land Management is crediting Garfield County with coming up with a plan to defer gas leasing on the top of the Roan Plateau until a specified amount of energy development occurs in surrounding lowlands.The federal agency is making that idea the cornerstone of its preferred draft alternative for managing the plateau top and base during the next 20 years.Jamie Connell, manager of the Glenwood Springs office of the BLM, said the county suggested deferring drilling while working with the BLM as a cooperating agency on the draft plan.The BLM released the plan Friday in a news conference in Battlement Mesa, at the western edge of the plateau, which runs east to Rifle, north of Interstate 70.Under the preferred draft plan, Alternative 3, drilling on the plateau top would not begin until 80 percent of the anticipated drilling elsewhere in the plateau planning area occurs.Connell said that threshold would be reached when about 2,400 wells are drilled and tested on public and private lands within the 127,000-acre planning area. Some 300 to 400 of those wells already have been drilled.The BLM estimates that 2,400-well threshold will be reached in around 16 years, after which the alternative provides for 51 wells to be drilled from 39 well pads on the plateau top over the remainder of the 20-year plan.However, the threshold could be reached within 10 years, or could take 20 years or more. If the latter happened, it would mean no drilling would occur on the plateau top over the life of the plan. Environmentalists and area communities have decried any drilling on the plateau top in order to protect the environmental and recreational values there.Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, who has been involved in the plateau planning process since 1997, characterized the deferment idea as out-of-the-box thinking.”I think this will really work and is a new concept for the BLM,” he said.Both environmentalists and industry representatives said they were intrigued by the idea. But Glenwood Springs resident Steve Smith, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, said the BLM’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect the plateau top.He said he likes aspects of many of the alternatives. “We just need to get all of that in one place and get that in the final plan,” he said.He and other environmentalists are disappointed that none of the five alternatives provide as much protection for the plateau top as had a preliminary draft alternative, Alternative F, which was later dropped from consideration. BLM officials say they dropped it and another preliminary alternative because of duplication between them and other alternatives, and because they didn’t comply with the intent of the federal law that transferred the plateau’s management to the BLM in 1997. That law required the property to be leased for oil and gas development.One alternative would allow just 10 wells above the plateau rim; the least restrictive would allow 234. Recommended drilling levels below the rim range from 818 to 1,348. Alternative 3 would allow 1,273 wells drilled from 363 pads below the plateau rim.These proposals are for federal lands, which total about 73,000 acres. Drilling also would take place on private land within the planning area.Alternative 3 also would designate two Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, at Trapper/Northwater Creek and East Fork Parachute Creek, the two principal watersheds on the plateau top. It seeks to protect Colorado River cutthroat trout and rare plants on the plateau.Alternative 3 also would create a management area for the entire 29,000-acre Parachute Creek watershed, which supplies water to the town of Parachute.It would protect a total of about 9,000 roadless acres, and river segments found eligible under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act pending a suitability study. It would provide a five-month seasonal restriction on activities to protect deer and elk winter range. With the exception of snowmobiles, it would restrict motorized and mechanical travel to designated routes, including on Hubbard Mesa, a popular mountain biking and motorcycling area north of Rifle that would be designated a Special Recreation Management Area.David Cesark, environmental specialist for Williams Production, a leading natural gas developer in Garfield County, likes what he has seen so far of the BLM’s draft plan.”My first impression is that it’s a really balanced plan and covers very broad perspectives,” he said. “I’m sure out of that we can find something we can live with. … I’m encouraged that we will all be able to sit down and meet in the middle ground somewhere.”Cesark said the deferred drilling idea may hold promise. Connell said one advantage of it is that continued developments in directional drilling and other technology minimizing the impacts of energy production could occur before drilling could begin on the plateau top.Smith has long made this same argument in saying that if drilling must occur on the plateau top, it at least shouldn’t occur during the life of the 20-year plan. He said possible drilling on the plateau top should wait until lowland wells aren’t just drilled, but are through producing gas. Garfield County wells often can remain productive for as much as 30 years, or even more.Martin said a combination of county representatives, including long-range planner Randy Russell, came up with the idea of deferred drilling. A similar threshold approach is used in county land use planning, where developers often are required to meet certain requirements, such as installation of infrastructure, before they can go further with their projects, he said.Martin said it was “almost unbelievable” that the BLM went along with the county’s idea. One reason the draft plan came out so much later than initially expected was because the concept was so new to BLM officials, he said. Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown believes the concept is a good one, but cautioned that it gives the industry control over when drilling can start on the plateau top.The deferment idea did little to raise some environmentalists’ opinion of the plan.”We’re pretty unhappy with it,” said Clare Bastable, of Carbondale, a staff member with the Colorado Mountain Club. “Basically the BLM has dropped a big turkey on Garfield County just in time for Thanksgiving.”Russell George of Rifle, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, thinks the BLM responded to concerns raised at the state and local level.”It appeared to me that they listened to us, and that is the way that government is supposed to work. I liked that very much,” George said.Ron Wenker, Colorado director of the BLM, praised the work of cooperating agencies, including the state, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, and Rifle and Parachute.”We truly believe that we all have an equal stake in deciding where we need to go with the future of the Roan Plateau,” he said.Connell said it’s important that in the debate over drilling on the plateau, the public doesn’t lose sight of other activities there – such as travel, hunting, fishing, livestock grazing, and even placement of cell phone sites – that will be dictated by the management plan.”People need to comment on all of these uses and all the things they’re interested in,” she said.
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