Colorado’s West Slope drilling ideas praised |

Colorado’s West Slope drilling ideas praised

Judith Kohler
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
David Zalubowski/APThe moon sets over a ridge of the Roan Plateau near the western Colorado community of Rifle. Colorado will collaborate with the U.S. Department of the Interior to on a plan for developing the energy resources on the wildlife-rich area.

DENVER, Colorado – Gov. Bill Ritter’s suggestions for managing the public land on the Roan Plateau have won praise from people on all sides of the issue of whether and how the area should be opened to energy development.

Other questions looming as large as the plateau that towers above the Colorado River are: do the governor’s suggestions go far enough and what will federal land managers do with them.

Last week, Ritter and his staff called on the Bureau of Land Management to expand the areas on top of and at the base of the Roan Plateau considered too environmentally sensitive for direct gas drilling. Rigs and other activities would have to be offsite.

A final decision is pending on designation of those areas: a total of 21,034 acres in the BLM plan and 36,184 in recommendations by Ritter and the state Division of Wildlife.

Ritter’s administration continues to talk to federal officials about the part of the management plan finalized in June for 70 percent of the 73,602 acres of public land on the western Colorado landmark. Ritter and state natural resources chief Harris Sherman have talked about phasing in leasing of the top of the plateau to maximize the revenue that state and federal governments receive and minimize impacts as technology advances.

Interior Department and state BLM officials don’t have to incorporate Ritter’s recommendations but said last week they welcome his contributions and will continue working with him.

Industry and elected officials who advocate developing the Roan Plateau praised Ritter for not suggesting a ban on drilling on top as other elected officials, environmentalists and communities have.

“He certainly broke from the positions being offered by the groups pushing for no development at all,” said Greg Schnacke, head of Golden-based Americans for American Energy, which supports more domestic energy production.

Americans for American Energy has publicly railed against opponents of developing the federal land on the Roan Plateau, near Rifle, calling them “anti-drilling extremists.”

The mayors of 10 western Colorado towns, including Rifle and Parachute, communities in the middle of the area’s natural gas boom, fired back in a Dec. 14 letter, saying the group’s motivation appears to be a “very narrow and self-serving principle: That no place is too special for your drilling rigs.”

“We have long held that the Roan Plateau was an economic engine and continues to be an economic engine for the city of Rifle in so far as the energy industry had abandoned us in the 1980s,” Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert said.

After the energy bust of the 1980s, the sprawling plateau that alternates between open flat spots, deep canyons and rugged peaks as high as 9,000 feet became an important, sustainable part of the area’s economy, the mayors said.

The Roan is home to the state’s largest deer and elk herds, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, bears, rare plants and genetically pure native cutthroat trout dating to the last ice age.

The plateau in the Piceance Basin also sits atop trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, some of the country’s largest oil shale deposits and, according to industry estimates, could produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state from lease payments and mineral royalties.

The plan developed over seven years with input from the public and the administration of Ritter’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Bill Owens, is the most restrictive ever approved by the BLM, industry and federal officials say.

The BLM’s plan projects 193 well pads and 1,570 wells over 20 years. 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 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.

Opponents of developing the public lands on the plateau ” environmentalists, community officials, hunting and angling groups ” applaud Ritter’s recommendation to expand the area off-limits to direct drilling and see his other suggestions as a move in the right direction. But they still would rather ban drilling or delay it until technology and practices improve to the point that the impacts are minimal.

“There’s no need to rush in drilling the Roan,” said Clare Bastable, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club. “Ninety-five percent of the public lands in the Piceance Basin is open to drilling now.”

Another reason there’s no hurry is that most of the public land under lease is sitting idle, said Steve Smith, associate regional director of The Wilderness Society.

“The value of this gas is only going to go up,” Smith said.

Support Local Journalism