Groups dig in for Roan fight
RIFLE, Colorado A coalition of 10 environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit on Friday that seeks to set aside the governments current management plan for natural gas drilling on the Roan Plateau. The court action also seeks to block an upcoming lease sale that would open up about 55,200 acres on the Western Colorado landmark to natural gas drilling.The environmental groups which include Wilderness Society, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Colorado Mountain Club and the Wilderness Workshop argue that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal law for not considering the long-term environmental impacts its management plan could have on the area, which is northwest of Rifle.The groups also allege that the agency failed to consider a reasonable range of alternative approaches for oil and gas development in the Roan Plateau Planning Area, according to the complaint filed late Friday.The environmental impact statement (EIS) upon which the BLM relies in this case entirely ignores the vast majority of oil and gas development that will eventually result from the agencys leasing decision, according to the lawsuit.Environmentalists, and recently sportsmen groups, have been trying to prevent drilling in the area for years, citing the possible impacts of natural gas development in the area could have on the areas wildlife, which includes genetically pure native cutthroat trout. The area also provides important habitat for mule deer and elk.The lawsuit says that the BLM ignored potential ozone impacts, and ignored the fact that impacts to wildlife and air quality from its plan would be exacerbated because of the unprecedented oil and gas development boom in the Piceance Basin or Northwestern Colorado.(The EIS also) ignores alternatives that would do what so many local governments and the state of Colorado favored significantly limit or carefully control new development at the base of the plateau and limit or proscribe new development on the top, the lawsuit said.The plan and its potential revenueThe agencys current plan for the area calls for 193 well pads in the entire area and 13 pads for the top of the plateau. Development of the area would be phased over time with one operator working on the ground to limit disturbance to 1 percent of federal land at any time.An estimated 9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas is under federal lands in the Roan area, and it is estimated that federal revenue from oil and gas royalties and gas sales could generate about $857 million to $1.13 billion over 20 years. Colorado would receive about half of the money generated from oil and gas extraction on the Roan.The BLM estimates that its Aug. 14 lease sale of 55,186 acres in 31 parcels in the Roan Plateau Planning Area will bring in between $100 million to $300 million.Eighteen of the 31 parcels, which encompass a total of 34,087 acres, are for the top of the plateau.The initial reactionJim Sample, a spokesman for the BLM, said the agency has seen the lawsuit, but that it does not comment on any pending litigation.Steve Smith, assistant regional manger for The Wilderness Society, said his group and the other environmental organizations that are part of the lawsuit certainly have long hoped that it would not come to this. But he added that the BLMs plan for accelerated gas production is at the expense of the more important enduring natural values of the area.The natural gas industry is already at maximum capacity and the BLM could easily take the time to be sure they do things right on the Roan, he said in a prepared statement. If we want to help Colorado, the government should be charging ahead with clean energy and efficiency investments, not rushing to sacrifice some of our most important wildlife and recreation areas.Ken Wonstolen, an attorney with Fulbright & Jaworski and legal counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said it wasnt any surprise that the lawsuit was filed because the groups signaled their intent to litigate the issue in mid-June.Virtually every environmental impact statement or resource management plan done in the Mountain West is litigated, Wonstolen said. It is standard operating procedure. It is the box that we have gotten ourselves into in this country with the environmental laws we set up. (They) are susceptible to litigation and that is the path these groups have chosen.Wonstolen said one thing that the groups behind the lawsuit never mention is that a 1997 act that transferred lands in the Roan Plateau Planning Area to the BLM directed that leases be issued on the date of enactment or as soon as practicable.We have had eight years of study and revision and reconsideration, Wonstolen said.Changes to the BLM through legislationU.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassas, and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, have introduced legislation that would alter the BLMs management plan for the Roan Plateau. Their bill would call for phased leasing of the Roan Plateau, along with increasing the acreage of areas of critical environmental concern by about 15,000 acres.The legislation is based on proposals outlined by Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter. His administration has criticized the BLM for ignoring his ideas for developing the Roan Plateau.Smith said The Wilderness Society and other organizations involved in the lawsuit are in support of a legislative solution that would modify the BLM plan, but that they havent settled on the bill put forward by the Salazars and Udall.We are working with congressional (members) to come up with a version that will reach that right combination, Smith said.The Roan legislation put forward by the Salazars and Udall faces an uphill climb because of a recent statement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in which he suggested that Congress might not pass any more appropriations bills for the remainder of the year.The three had planned to attach their Roan bill to an appropriations bill.A continuing resolution diminishes our options in terms of the available legislation that is out there, but it does not entirely do away with the possibility of passing this legislation all together, said Michael Amodeo, a spokesman for Ken Salazar. We are going to have to work hard and it is going to be a hard fight.