Roan shaping up as national energy battleground |

Roan shaping up as national energy battleground

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
A dusting of snow covers the contours of the Roan Plateau near Eagle in November 2003. (AP file)

DENVER ” A western Colorado landmark that’s both a hunting and recreation mecca and an energy treasure trove has become a battleground on the front lines of domestic energy production.

The Roan Plateau looms over the Colorado River and alternates between open flat spots, deep canyons and rugged peaks as high as 9,000 feet. It also sits atop several trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to industry and federal estimates, and is home to large oil shale deposits.

Industry officials say that makes the plateau important to cutting the country’s reliance on foreign fuel. A Colorado-based, industry-led nonprofit called Americans for American Energy is launching a campaign to lump the Roan with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as symbols of thwarted attempts at energy independence.

“It’s absurd to have an area of the nation that was set aside as an energy enclave back in the early 1900s sit idle with 5 trillion cubic feet of gas,” said Greg Schnacke, who’s resigning as head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group to help with the campaign. “That’s enough gas to heat every home in Colorado for a quarter century.”

But a 20-year management plan opening some of the 73,602 acres of federal land on and around the plateau to gas drilling is on hold while Gov. Bill Ritter reviews the plan, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in June.

Ritter, who took office in January, got an extra 120 days to study the plan after Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., blocked the confirmation of James Caswell to head the BLM. Salazar dropped his “hold” Aug. 3 when the Interior Department agreed to give Ritter more time.

Salazar has yet to decide whether he’ll support a provision in the House version of the federal energy bill that would bar drilling on federal land atop the plateau.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., opposes the energy bill in part because of the Roan Plateau amendment, spokeswoman Tara Hendershott said. “He feels the action by the House really wipes out years of efforts by locals and federal officials,” Hendershott said.

The amendment was sponsored by Salazar’s brother, Rep. John Salazar, and Rep. Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats.

The top of the plateau is considered sensitive because of pockets of pristine backcountry that are home to genetically pure native cutthroat trout dating to the last ice age and other wildlife.

Proponents of developing the Roan, including some area elected officials, counter that there’s drilling on private land there now and that the BLM’s management plan is highly restrictive. They argue that the federal government intended the plateau to be a key energy source.

A 1910 executive order set aside federal land there as Naval Oil Shale Reserves No. 1 and 3. Proponents say the land was transferred from the Department of Energy to the Interior Department in 1997 with the understanding that it would be leased for oil and gas.

If development is barred, they contend, Colorado will miss out on roughly $1 billion from leases and royalties shared with the federal government.

Opponents insist the area was intended to be managed on Colorado’s terms, and they dispute the revenue projections.

Udall said western Colorado has made many compromises to accommodate record gas drilling. Drilling federal land on the Roan isn’t crucial, he says, since there is no production on about 70 percent of federal land in Colorado already under lease for oil and gas development.

“We shouldn’t undertake development at the expense of unique places like the national wildlife refuge in Alaska and the Roan Plateau,” Udall said.

The city of Rifle, on the edge of the plateau about 180 miles west of Denver, is one of several communities that passed resolutions asking the BLM to keep drilling off the top of the Roan. Conservation, hunting and fishing groups joined the campaign, saying the Roan is vital to recreation industries.

A report for the Colorado Division of Wildlife said in 2002, the last year figures were available, direct spending on hunting and fishing generated $53 million in Garfield County, which includes Rifle.

“The Roan Plateau has been one of our economic engines for the community because we’ve relied historically on hunting, fishing and grazing,” Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert said.

The growing outdoors and recreation industries helped Rifle through the energy bust of the 1980s, when plummeting oil prices and diminishing government subsidies led to the collapse of the oil shale industry. A few companies are experimenting with new technology to mine the oil locked in rocks.

Lambert said Rifle eventually supported the BLM plan that emerged from sessions with local, state and federal officials as a fallback position after initially promoting no drilling on top.

Discussions with other agencies, including the Colorado Division of Wildlife, prompted the BLM to modify its proposal. State wildlife officials worried that delaying development on the top would intensify drilling on the bottom, crucial winter range for some of the region’s largest elk and deer herds.

The final plan projects 193 well pads and 1,570 wells over 20 years, including 13 pads and 210 wells on top. The BLM says the plan would preserve 51 percent of land on top of and below the plateau while allowing recovery of more than 90 percent of the natural gas.

On top, the BLM calls for oil and gas drilling to be done in stages and clusters to limit disturbance to 1 percent of the federal land at any time. Development would be focused on slopes with less than a 20 percent angle.

The BLM delayed a decision on management of areas deemed environmentally sensitive ” about 30 percent of the federal land ” because the areas weren’t adequately described in the plan. The deadline for comments on those areas was Friday.

“This plan is the most restrictive resource management plan ever presented by the BLM, period,” Schnacke of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said. “Already some companies are discouraged and have announced to me that they’re not going to bid on it.”

He declined to name the companies.

Drilling opponents argue that once leasing starts, the number of wells will exceed BLM’s projections. They say that 90 percent of the gas can’t be recovered drilling just 1,570 wells and that the projected densities of wells would result in thousands of them.

“They’re trying to avoid telling the public what the impacts of full buildout will be,” said Mike Chiropolos, an attorney with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.

BLM spokeswoman Jaime Gardner said the agency won’t know for sure how many wells will be drilled until leasing starts. She said further environmental assessments will be done when that occurs.

There’s also debate over how much money the state will get from lease payments and royalties. First, federal legislation is needed to give the state any money. Currently, revenue from fees and royalties on land already leased in the planning area goes to a special fund for the cleanup of a site on the plateau where oil shale research took place decades ago.

BLM officials have said there’s more than enough money for the cleanup, which could start next summer. Sen. Allard has proposed a bill to give the state its share of the revenue.

But even if the money starts flowing, it likely won’t be as much as predicted by supporters of development, said Mary Ellen Denomy, a petroleum accountant.

Based on 19 federal tracts leased in the area over the last year, an analysis by Denomy, done for environmental groups and Democratic legislators, concluded the state’s share of lease revenue over 20 years would be $8.1 million at most.

“For the largest gas reserve in the lower 48, that’s not credible,” state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said of Denomy’s analysis.

Penry believes the figure would be closer to $1 billion, based on recent sales in the area. He is co-sponsoring a bill to funnel the state’s proceeds to two permanent trust funds, one for higher education and one for energy-impact assistance.