The controversy over drilling the Roan Plateau started on the local streets of Rifle, Colorado and has gone up the political ranks through the governor’s office, Congress and U.S. Senate to the top echelons of the Bush Administration. It has possibly become the symbol of a new western “Sagebrush Rebellion” where Democratic leaders in a new Democratically-controlled state government and federal delegation have placed a-line-in-the-sand against White House control over public lands and its anti-environmental energy policies.
Here is a recap of how the Roan Plateau and its measly 70,000 acres, out of 261 million acres under BLM control, became a significant political issue. A Test of Political Wills
If President Bush wants his Bureau of Land Management nominee James Caswell to be approved by the Senate, the process will have to get a seal of approval from Colorado’s Senator Ken Salazar. And Salazar won’t give his nod until he is assured Caswell agrees to work more cooperatively with the State of Colorado on energy development including oil shale mining and oil and gas drilling-especially on the environmentally sensitive area of the Roan Plateau west of Rifle.
Salazar’s move is the one of the recent attempts by Colorado elected officials to put the brakes on leasing the unique natural area of the Roan Plateau to private oil and gas companies. Gov. Bill Ritter has sought an extended 120-day period to review the locally unpopular BLM’s Roan Plateau Resource Management Plan that was recently released, but the BLM has refused to capitulate.
Roan Plateau Has Had a Long Political History
The fight over drilling on the Roan Plateau has involved Colorado’s leading politicians and has spanned over a decade. Once part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, the management of the Roan switched to the control of the BLM under former Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s 1996 bill. Several years ago, Rep. Diana DeGette suggested wilderness areas be set aside on the Roan and that effort was strongly blocked by former Republican Congressman Scott McInnis.
Not to forget—the debate over how, if and when to drill the Roan Plateau has been brewing in the local, regional and even national citizenry for as many years. Ranchers, hunting guides, tourists, energy development supporters, environmentalists, fishermen, county commissioners, mayors, chambers of commerce and countless more have weighed in. Some have followed predicted political lines on where they stood on the issue, but most generally have forgone usual political theocracies in support of preserving the BLM top section of the Roan from drilling until future technology can mitigate its impact.
Perhaps some of the successes in the usually very Republican counties in the northwest of the state for Democratic candidates such as Ritter, and both Salazar brothers might have stemmed from their vocal support of drilling constraints on sensitive wildlife habitat areas such as the Roan Plateau.
Now a skirmish over the Roan-not unlike an updated version of the Sagebrush Rebellion of state rights vs. federal control-has erupted between the Bush Administration and Colorado’s Democratic delegation led by Congressmen Mark Udall and John Salazar, Sen. Ken Salazar and Gov. Ritter.
Recent Chess Moves
In June, Colorado Confidential reported that the attempt to stop the BLM from leasing gas permits on the Roan Plateau for a year was unsuccessful.
Congressmen Udall and Salazar had initially planned on proposing an amendment to the Interior Department’s budget that would have delayed the BLM’s plan for at least a year. However, the White House tacked on a $10 million expenditure item to the proposal and the congressmen had to drop their amendment.
Sen. Salazar warned that he would block the appointment of James Caswell, President Bush’s nominee to lead the BLM until Interior Secretary Kempthorne agreed to grant the 120 day waiver to the governor.
Boom! The Roan Plateau issue climbed into the inner circles of the Bush Administration.
Last week, Ritter and Sen. Salazar traveled by helicopter over the Roan Plateau and several other environmental sensitive areas the BLM has proposed to lease for drilling. Both reflected on the need to set these “special areas” aside until drilling technology could lesson the impact on the land, air and wildlife in order to protect these natural settings for future generations. Plus, Salazar noted, by 2020 there could be 60,000 wells drilled in Northwest Colorado without the Roan.
Back to Sen. Salazar’s warning to the White House that he would put a “hold” on their nomination of Caswell for BLM chief….. He has asked for assurances from the Department of Interior that they will work more cooperatively with the state on energy development on public lands, including oil and gas drilling on and around the Roan Plateau. In addition, Salazar has insisted the BLM give the Ritter administration 120-days to review the Roan Plateau Management Resource Management Plan. No show, no go.
“I am not going to let the BLM run roughshod over the State of Colorado,” Salazar said during his Thursday press conference. “I’m going to make that abundantly clear during my frank discussion with Interior Secretary Harry Kempler.”
Those sound like “fightin’ words.” Didn’t the Civil War start with one shot over Fort Sumter?
A clip from the Ritter/Salazar press conference after their trip last week:
Also read how Gov. Ritter has changed the state’s focus on oil and gas regulation here.
Top and third photo: Roan Plateau by BLM
All other photos and video by Leslie Robinson.