Talks yield no resolution in Roan Plateau lawsuit |

Talks yield no resolution in Roan Plateau lawsuit

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – Western Colorado’s Roan Plateau is the kind of place that should be declared off-limits under new federal energy leasing policies, said an attorney for environmental groups suing to limit drilling on the landmark.

A coalition of groups is suing the federal government, claiming a 2007 plan by the Bureau of Land Management for natural gas development on the plateau’s public land didn’t adequately analyze the potential impact. Mike Freeman, an attorney for Earthjustice, said Bill Barrett Corp.’s recent statements that there are a potential of up to 3,200 drilling sites on the plateau makes the situation even more dire.

State and federal officials in the past have recognized the Roan Plateau as among the most biologically rich sites in Colorado, Freeman said. The plateau 180 miles west of Denver has plants not found anywhere else, provides habitat for some of the country’s largest elk and deer herds and is home to genetically pure native cutthroat trout.

It is the type of landscape envisioned by federal officials who recently announced new oil and gas leasing policies aimed at protecting special public places, Freeman said last week.

“A total of 3,200 wells on top will turn the Roan Plateau into an industrial zone,” he said.

Federal officials say there is a lot of natural gas to drill: an estimated 9 trillion cubic feet, enough to heat millions of homes for several years. Environmental groups challenge the estimated amount of recoverable gas as too high.

Freeman said energy companies have plenty of other places to drill because only about 30 percent of 5.2 million acres of approved federal oil and gas leases in Colorado are currently in production. But he said his clients will keep trying to resolve the dispute with the federal government and Bill Barrett.

The latest round of negotiations was Jan. 8. A new session hasn’t been scheduled yet.

“We’re encouraged enough by the prospect of a settlement to continue down the road we’ve been on,” said Duane Zavadil, a senior vice president with Bill Barrett.

The company’s development plans will be “100 percent consistent” with the BLM’s management plan for the Roan Plateau, Zavadil said.

The company has a 90 percent stake in about 40,000 acres of the leases on the Roan Plateau.

In 2007, the BLM approved a plan that projected up to 1,570 wells would be drilled from 193 pads and over 20 years, including 210 wells from 13 pads on top of the plateau, considered more environmentally sensitive. But the plan doesn’t limit the number of wells.

In 2008, the BLM auctioned leases on 54,631 acres for a total of nearly $114 million. The agency has suspended the leases while settlement talks are taking place. There is drilling on some of the plateau’s private land.

The lawsuit by environmental groups claims the BLM didn’t consider a reasonable range of alternative approaches in its management plan.

The BLM has said the plan was developed after several years of study and public meetings and input. Federal officials say the plan contains several safeguards, including spacing well pads at least a half-mile apart, with “development to be constrained on existing roads and ridges on top of the plateau.”

“My hope would be that we could get to a resolution allowing for greater protection of the Roan Plateau and critical habitats, and at the same time allow development to proceed on the Roan in a way that is phased in over time,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Associated Press last month.

As a U.S. senator from Colorado, Salazar opposed the Bush administration’s plan for the Roan Plateau. Now, he is named in the lawsuit. He began exploring a possible settlement after taking over Interior Department last year.

Earlier this month, Salazar and BLM officials announced new polices for oil and gas leasing on public land that include greater scrutiny of proposed leases.

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