Senator withholds judgment on measure to protect Roan Plateau |

Senator withholds judgment on measure to protect Roan Plateau

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

In early July, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar flew over the top of the Roan Plateau with Gov. Bill Ritter and declared that he thinks no natural gas drilling should occur there.

In August, his brother – U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa – joined U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, in successfully getting the House to amend its energy bill to keep drill rigs off the top of the Roan, outside of Rifle. Yet in the months since, Ken Salazar, D-Colo., has remained mum on whether he will support that amendment.

Salazar’s silence has left those involved in the Roan debate to speculate about what a key player on the issue might be thinking.

“He’s sort of on the fence on this because he’s being hammered daily by industry and industry groups and people,” said Glenwood Springs resident Bob Millette, chair of the Roaring Fork Group of the Sierra Club. “He’s not hearing enough from the other side.”

Said Salazar spokeswoman Stephanie Valencia, “I think lots of people have concerns about the Roan Plateau, and he’s hearing it from everyone. He’s heard everyone’s concerns.”

Steve Smith, a Glenwood resident and assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society, said it may be that Salazar is looking at the whole energy bill and deciding “which portions to promote when.” He voiced confidence that Salazar would speak up in favor of protecting the Roan as work goes forward on reconciling the differences between the House energy bill and the Senate measure, which includes no ban on drilling on the plateau top.

But Smith added, “The time to speak up is coming soon.”

Valencia called the Roan Plateau issue “a big piece of the energy debate” for Salazar, but she said the proper time for him to comment will come after Ritter has had a chance to weigh in on the Roan. Based on a demand by Salazar, the Interior Department gave Ritter 120 days to review the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to allow drilling on the plateau top. Salazar blocked confirmation of James Caswell to head the BLM until Interior granted his demand.

“We need to give ample opportunity for the (Ritter review) process to run its course,” Valencia said. “I think he really wants to hear what this report says in 120 days and wants to take that into serious consideration.”

She said she believes that 120-day period ends in early December.

Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, a lobbying group for the Western Slope, hopes Salazar may be giving due consideration to proper process. Both Club 20 and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., have said the years of planning and public input that led to the BLM’s decision to allow drilling on the top of the plateau should be honored rather than trumped by a political process.

Brown said it can be harder for senators than House members to be parochial in their political views and focus only on what’s best for their backyards. They are not elected to represent a congressional district, but the state as a whole. As a result, Salazar may be more inclined to consider the Roan’s natural gas reserves as well as its environmental and other values.

Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said he thinks Salazar sees the need to maintain existing energy sources such as natural gas while making the transition to renewables, and also recognizes the national security concerns related to overdependence on foreign energy.

“I think that’s something he’s expressed concern over in the past,” Smith said.

Brown said Salazar’s position on the Roan could be crucial because Allard already opposes the House amendment. If both senators in Colorado oppose it, the amendment would be unlikely to fare well among senators in other states where constituents are more concerned about high energy prices than protection of the Roan Plateau.

Steve Smith said that because of Allard’s position on the Roan, it’s all the more important for Salazar to speak up in favor of protecting it. He said Salazar also is in a better position to influence the energy legislation as a member of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Salazar also is a part of the Senate’s Democratic majority.

Asked about Salazar’s silence on the Roan amendment, Udall said in a prepared statement, “I have no doubt that Senator Salazar shares his brother John’s and my concern about the Roan Plateau. What is important right now is not making speeches, but working inside the halls of Congress – talking to the leadership and to the senators and representatives who will be helping shape the final version of the energy legislation.”

Ritter never has come out in opposition to drilling on the Roan but has said it is one of the last places that drilling should be allowed to occur.

Said Millette, “Our governor needs to take a strong stand on it. That could provide ammunition for Salazar to take a stand.”

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