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To drill or not to drill?

Staff Reports

Bleary-eyed travelers cruising I-70 might miss the interesting hunk of land rising 3,500 feet from the Colorado River Valley northwest of Rifle: spanning nearly 80,000 acres, the Roan Plateau is immense.Unless, of course, it is compared to the vast Western Slope landscape which surrounds it.Taken in context, the Roan Plateau may seem like just another slab of rock; albeit one with unique characteristics. Hidden among crags in its stony tabletop is a brilliant array of multivariate cliffs, towering escarpments, hidden shelves and enclaves, intermittent gorges and narrow valleys cut by free-flowing streams and creeks.But, even if you missed it, others have not.The Roan Plateau is currently the center of a heated debate about how to use 76,000 of public land specifically 40,000 acres of pristine land atop the Roan’s surface. Poised in the center of the debate is the Bureau of Land Management, which must decide what portions should be protected for their natural values and what should be leased to oil and gas companies for energy development.A nation-wide push, led by the Bush Administration and carried out by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, calls for more oil and gas production within the United States’ boundaries.But gathered at the base of the Roan, in small communities like Rifle and Glenwood Springs, a growing voice of dissent is building. People from all walks of life (or, Western walks of life, anyhow), are trying to come together, to unify and, despite long odds, defend the singular patch of land atop the Roan.There is almost no underestimating the importance of the pending BLM decision. The fate of the Roan Plateau will not only be monumental for people living at the base of the Roan, but for all those in the central Rockies as well. The BLM’s upcoming decision will also set national precedent for all such land-use decisions of the near future.Like much of the Rocky Mountain West, the Roan’s land is suited to a range of different uses but not all uses work well together. For oil and gas companies, as for hikers and fishermen, the Roan’s primary appeal is in its unique geology. As a part of the gas-rich Piceance Basin, the Roan is highly valued by the industry (and the Bush Administration) for the access it provides to some 15-trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying in wait beneath it.The economic value of the gas is significant enough that the Roan was flagged, by the Bush Administration, to receive an expedited review process in order to streamline the costs and time required to develop its mineral resources.On the other hand, Roan is treasured for its natural assets, too; its stunning views, wilderness, diverse ecology, wildlife habitat, and the many recreational opportunities it affords. Conservationists say these assets add to quality of life and to the regional economy.Both sides claim they want a balance between uses, but what would such a balance look like?The debate over this question has grown from a localized, Garfield-county issue to a region-wide concern. Articles have appeared in The Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, and virtually every other publication in Colorado and southern Wyoming. As the issue grows, so grows the publicity and the understanding that the fate of the Roan is tied to the overall fate of the Rocky Mountain West.The end of public input comes at the end of February when the BLM will then withdraw to create a finalized plan. Those who want to draw attention to the Roan, and change the current course of policy making, are running out of time.Despite wide support, Alternative F was never taken seriously by the BLM. Now, community members offer a new alternativeOf the 76,000 acre planning area, the 40,000 that make up the top and sides of the plateau are the most critical in the current debate. It is this area, the upper plateau, which is coveted by oil and gas interests for its energy development but also by local citizens and environmental groups who value it for its ecological, recreational, and aesthetic values.In 2002 the BLM released a set of alternative management scenarios to gauge public sentiment.These included a management direction which proved pivotal in the current debate. Alternative F, as it was called, was the only given option which protected the top and sides of the Plateau from energy development but it also allowed expanded energy development at its base.Proponents of Alternative F say it provided a unique balance because it defers drilling on the highly-valued upper plateau until 80 percent of the wells at the base have been fully developed.Alternative F was widely popular with the public: it garnered official endorsement from Garfield County, each of the six municipalities therein, 300 local businesses and organizations and over 10,000 citizens who submitted comments to the BLM.Despite this support, the BLM did not include Alternative F in their current draft plan (called the Roan Plateau Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement RMPA/EIS).The RMPA/EIS offers five alternatives. Of those five, three open up all of the planning area to leasing and drilling.Steve Hall is the BLM’s Western Slope public affairs officer. He says the draft RMPA/EIS alternatives provide a balanced approach that allows a mix of various levels of development and protection. He also says the alternatives are flexible by mixing and matching different parts of each alternative, he thinks the BLM will be able to create a balanced final alternative.In response to claims that the draft doesn’t include an F-type ‘stay off the top’ alternative, Hall said that Alternative 1 of the RMPA/EIS, “no action,” effectively prohibits drilling on top as no leases are allowed currently.And, he says, Alternative F was misunderstood.”Some groups misused the F-alternative,” he says. “It was never a discrete alternative but part of a scoping process. So to speak as though it were an actual alternative we were considering is misleading, I think.” Hall also believes that the notion of a highly supportive public is being overplayed: “I haven’t seen an overwhelming grassroots movement that is opposed to drilling on the Roan Plateau.”Peter Kolbenschlag, of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, takes issue with Hall’s assessment.”If this is not large-scale, I would even say overwhelming, public opposition to drilling on top, I cannot imagine what is,” he says.But Hall says that the BLM must keep in mind that there are two publics, an active public and a general public, and while he believes that the input of the active public is important, it doesn’t always represent the sentiment of the general public.Garfield County Commissioner John Martin forwards another argument for allowing leasing on the Roan, claiming that the natural or “wilderness” characteristics of the plateau are being exaggerated.Martin says the area contains patches of private land, is already bisected by many roads, and is already dotted with 63 gas wells. For Martin, the BLM’s preferred alternative offers a balance of environmental protection and access to drilling, but he encourages the public to voice their concerns and continue the debate.”We are trying to do a balancing act here. So it’s not perfect by any means, but that’s why this comment period is so crucial. We want people to go through each alternative and tell us about it.”Greg Goodenow, an environmental planner at the BLM’s Glenwood office, agrees with balancing act analogy and stresses that any management direction will not be made for economic reasons alone.”We are trying to balance uses, not economics,” he says.When asked if the emphasis on energy development was due to political pressure from the Bush Administration, Goodenow said he didn’t think so and that “there may be differences in policy, but the rules and regulations that guide us are still in place.”Goodenow is among those who feel that the current draft plan’s alternatives provide a full spectrum of available management approaches but many disagree.Disappointed by the draft plan, an alliance of community groups and citizens have drafted a new alternative, which they believes balances all the best elements of the currently offered alternatives. The plan, representatives say, is one that can win support across the board. It allows substantial energy development (allowing gas companies to reap up to 85 percent of the Roan’s energy resources), yet saves the Plateau’s upper regions from drilling.But that 85 percent figure is up for debate.Ken Wonstolen, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, says 5 trillion cubic feet of gas would be unavailable for extraction if gas companies aren’t allowed to drill from the top.”That (85 percent figure) is pretty misleading,” he says. “The notion that you can get most of the gas from the side (of the Plateau) is illusory.”Wonstolen says that the gas available from the top of the Plateau could heat all the houses in Colorado for a year. And, he adds, the amount of environmental damage caused to the top of the Plateau would be minimal.”There’s about 200 miles of existing roads up there, we’d be building paths off those roads and we should be able to do that,” he says. He adds that there’d be four-to-eight gas wells per pad, but he doesn’t know how many pads they’d be making on top of the Plateau.Either way, Wonstolen says his drilling pads would be far away from wetlands, the scenic waterfall, and other sensitive environmental areas.”We could get most of what we think is appropriate (by building wells) close to the existing road structure up there,” he says.Getting the gas out of the Plateau and heating Colorado’s homes, he says, would be worth it.Money could be a boon for local economies but for how long?If the “Community Alternative” wins support, Wonstolen won’t have his way: drilling on the top of Roan won’t occur for at least 20 years, or the life of the plan.Otherwise, says Kolbeschlag, drilling could occur much sooner. “They’ll be drilling up there in much less than 16 years,” he says. “They are trying to distract the public with that bogus, 16-year deferral, but if you project out, even if you level everything off after 2005, they will still be done and drilling up top in six-to-eight years.”Kolbenschlag has backing for his criticism.Following the release of the draft plan, a study found that the BLM had used old data to make its projections. By using the BLM’s own, more recent, data, the time frame to complete the base and begin development on top would be less than half what the BLM and industry have forecast.Another opposition view was recently voiced in a local op-ed piece questioning the logic of a 16-year deferment on a 20-year plan. The argument goes; if the BLM can wait 16-years why not wait 20 at which point we will all have a better idea of energy needs and available technology that might allow drilling without disturbing the surface of the upper plateau.”Steve Smith, regional director for the Wilderness Society, says the BLM had not included an alternative that was in line with what the community had asked for.”There is not a single alternative among the five that gives proper protection to the top of the plateau. Since that type of protection has been so strongly supported throughout the community, it’s odd that the none of the draft alternatives specifically address it.”The BLM is charged with managing the Roan for the public interest not a simple task.On the local and regional level, the Roan has brought a fair amount of controversy and Garfield county has shown its interest in protecting the land.On a national level, however, the Roan has been declared an important component of the Bush Administration’s push for greater domestic energy production.The economic incentives for municipalities and states to allow energy development on public land is strong they receive a significant portion of the royalty payments. On the Roan, for example, these payments could tally up to $300 million for the state and local communities over the life of the 20-year plan.Such a payout would outweigh foreseeable clean up costs, but the question remains whether it is enough to outweigh the costs of forever changing natural character of the area, especially as the recreation industry grows in Colorado.As mining fades, recreation grows and disparate communities mergeThose who support limited drilling are adamant that they are not against all drilling just drilling on the top of the plateau. Up to 85 percent of the gas, they say, could be recovered without drilling on top a figure likely to rise as technologies for directional drilling improve.Rifle Mayor Kieth Lambert says the community is cautiously weighing its options with a sound grasp of recent history.”After the oilshale bust of 1982 we had a huge economic downturn, huge. We had 2,500 workers out of work in one afternoon, and people were leaving the community overnight, literally overnight. That’s the history we have had. Now, the gas industry is gearing up, and its is a huge impact in our local economy. People don’t want it to go away we just want the industry to be good neighbors and see that they don’t run rampant and are held in check.”Greg Cassarini, an economist with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, says that protecting the Roan will provide the best long term benefit to the region’s economy.”Energy development comes and goes. If you damage those lands they aren’t valuable for certain uses anymore. Local communities are going to need those different uses to thrive.”For Cassarini, this idea is part of the bigger picture about natural resource use and public land management in the West. “Communities in the West need to think about their long term viability, which is directly tied to those lands. You destroy those lands, they can’t be used anymore. Those (public) lands bring people to these communities, people who come to visit, people who come to live, it brings people for quality of life.”Labert believes this solidarity is important and says that the towns of Rifle and Parachute have already decided to work together towards forming a joint position on the issue. He’s not sure what that position will be, but is optimistic that the BLM will work with the communities to find the right balance. “If we can come together as government agencies, with a concise plan, every body can get behind it. It will be a statement and it will carry some weight.”Lambert says the issue is uniting, ” a wildly disparate group which you would never associate together. There are old ranchers, environmentalists, hunters, seniors, and it’s all because of this: it’s linked to this common ground.”The West is not a place where community consensus about an issue comes easily. Ranchers, county commissioners, local business owners and environmental activists are used to bickering not standing shoulder-to-shoulder to present a common viewpoint.For Alan Rolston, of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, this point is important and is part of why the Roan issue is much larger than a debate about saving the environment or drilling for gas.”People are coming together because they want a voice and they are not getting it,” he says.Rolston takes a broad look at the situation and sees a number of important questions about how we want to live and what we value. The Roan Plateau, he says, is an opportunity for people to take a stand.”We need to take control at the local level, in our cities and counties. It takes a lot of work to understand issues like this but its part of a much bigger set of problems. I see it as a struggle between local people and big businesses. There is a chance to do things right, we have a chance to take control of our own destinies. If (the BLM) doesn’t do it right there will be resistance. There already is resistance.”Mayor Keith Lambert took a less defiant tone but also noted the larger significance of the issue.”Really, the Roan is the poster child for drawing that line in the sand, it’s a place where people are trying to keep our past in tact while recognizing change is here.” Rolston’s view not only considers the past, but is especially concerned with the future.”This is a question much bigger than the Roan, it’s a question about where we are going as a society, how we define progress, how we participate in our democracy, I’ve got three grandkids and worry about their future, we can’t keep living like this, we need to learn to live sustainably.”Rolston is optimistic about steps he sees being taken at the local level to arrive a solution to the Roan debate, but within the larger political context he is not confident that the BLM will listen to what the public is saying.”The current (Bush) Administration wants to drill public lands for oil and gas and the BLM has work with that pressure. I am not sure about how the BLM will look at multiple use under the current administration. (Secretary of the Interior) Gail Norton can talk about the four C’s you know consultation, cooperation and communication, conservation but to me that’s just more spin-doctoring by the Bush Administration. They are not concerned with what people here want.”Preserving the landscapes of the West, including the traditional working landscapes of ranching, agriculture and mining, is a difficult task as the West changes and grows. For people like Rolston, the solution is found in the development of stable and self-reliant communities, which provide a diverse and non-extractive base to their economies. Those who wish to preserve the top of the Roan Plateau understand the importance of drilling for gas but only when the public benefit outweighs the effects of clear, well-documented impacts. VTClark Anderson is a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at clanderson@ucdavis.edu.Tom Boyd is editor of the Vail Trail and can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com.For more on the Roan Plateau visit:www.roanplateau.ene.comwww.coga.orgwww.saveroanplateau.orgwww.ourcolorado.orgThe public comment period ends March 3.Send comments to:Roan Plateau Draft RMPA/EIS CommentsBureau of Land ManagementGlenwood Springs Field OfficePO Box 1009Glenwood Springs, CO 81602Fax 970-947-2829


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