Salazar rules out yanking Roan Plateau leases | AspenTimes.com

Salazar rules out yanking Roan Plateau leases

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

This photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, left, speaking while Jan McCracken, a commissioner from Delta County, Colo., looks on at a ceremony at the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009, south of Grand Junction, Colo. The conservation area covers a 50-mile section along the Gunnison River and nearby canyons, cliffs and mesas in western Colorado. (AP Photo/HO, Bureau of Land Management)

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is ruling out withdrawing energy leases issued for the Roan Plateau even though the plan to drill on public land on the western Colorado landmark is being challenged in court.

As a Colorado senator, Salazar was critical of the Bush administration’s plan to develop the plateau about 180 miles west of Denver. He started exploring a possible settlement of the lawsuit by environmentalists after taking over as Interior secretary this year.

But Salazar told The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction Wednesday that the leases have been signed and he is bound to protect the property rights of those who bought them.

Salazar was in Colorado for the formal dedication of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area south of Grand Junction.

In February, Salazar withdrew 77 oil and gas leases in Utah after saying they were too close to national parks. He has left open the possibility that some leases might prove suitable for development after a review.

The process in the Utah leases wasn’t as far along as in the Roan Plateau leases, Salazar said.

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A lawsuit by environmental groups claims the federal government’s environmental analysis of the potential impacts of development on the Roan Plateau was inadequate. Salazar has encouraged an out-of-court settlement and federal officials, the company that bought the leases and environmental groups have been in negotiations.

Attorneys for environmental groups, however, say a recent change in ownership of the leases has complicated the talks and dimmed hopes for a resolution.

The battle over tapping the Roan Plateau’s vast gas reserves and protecting its extensive wildlife habitat and undeveloped backcountry moved to the courts last year after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved opening up more areas to drilling.

Last year’s auction of federal leases on 54,631 acres of the plateau generated nearly $114 million, a record for onshore energy lease sales in the lower 48 states.

In 2007, Salazar, then a Democratic senator from Colorado, blocked the confirmation of President George Bush’s nominee to head the BLM until Colorado officials got more time to review the Roan Plateau plan. He urged the BLM to adopt Gov. Bill Ritter’s proposal to issue the leases in phases over several years rather than all at once.

Salazar also criticized what he called the Bush administration’s rush to approve a plan for the commercial development of oil shale in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Companies are still experimenting with ways to free the oil in the rock formations.

When he took over the Interior Department, Salazar rescinded an offer of a second round of research and development leases on federal land started under the outgoing Bush administration. He said Wednesday that he expects to reopen the second round of leases for oil shale in the next month or so.

The BLM issued six, 160-acre federal leases for oil shale research and development in 2006 and 2007. Five are in northwest Colorado.