Energy firm set to begin Roan gas drilling

Northside view of the Roan Plateau near Cow Creek . (Photo/aspidoscelis, Flickr)
Northside view of the Roan Plateau near Cow Creek . (Photo/aspidoscelis, Flickr)
Falling natural gas prices and more stringent state drilling regulations won’t deter some energy companies from going full bore on Colorado’s Western Slope, but conservation groups hope their lawsuit in U.S. District Court will at least block drilling on the Roan Plateau near Rifle.

A poster child for the issues surrounding the state’s latest natural-gas boom, the ecologically diverse Roan was divvied up in a record lease sale by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in August. A lawsuit filed against the BLM by Earthjustice on behalf of 10 conservation groups is still pending.

Last week, an official for Denver-based Vantage Energy told The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel his company is proceeding with exploration of the parcels totaling around 40,000 acres that it leased from the BLM for about $57 million.

“A short-term fluctuation in gas prices is not going to stop us from pursuing that project,” company spokesman Mark Rothenberg said. “It may cause some subtle changes in what we do in 2009 or 2010, but it’s not going to change our impression of the Roan Plateau as being a tremendous resource.”

But Earthjustice, a nonprofit public-interest law firm representing such groups at the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Trout Unlimited, the Colorado Mountain Club and the Wilderness Society, would like to see those leases -– a total of nearly 55,000 acres that brought in a record $114 million -– invalidated by a district judge before next summer.

“The Roan Plateau is another area where we’re hoping to see more attention paid to the hunters and the anglers and the local residents and all of the conservation groups,” Earthjustice staff attorney Ted Zukoski told Colorado Independent. “We hope to see the leases on the top [of the plateau] overturned.”

The lawsuit contends the BLM ignored the National Environmental Policy Act in proceeding with the lease sale, failing to give enough consideration to the air- and water-quality impacts drilling would have on an ecosystem that is prime habitat for large deer and elk populations, as well as native cutthroat trout.

The U.S. Department of the Interior in September rejected a slew of protests against the lease sale, including one by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Gov. Bill Ritter objected to the mass sale of all the available leases on the upper Roan Plateau, arguing that selling them piecemeal would net more for the state, which gets roughly half the revenues.

In October, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger declined to rule on a temporary injunction sought by environmental groups to halt drilling on the upper Roan. She said that since drilling wouldn’t begin until June at the earliest, she would have enough time to rule on the lawsuit itself.

In the meantime, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission finalized its more environmentally stringent drilling regulations, which are still subject to approval by the state Legislature.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they will fight the new regs because they go too far at a time when the energy sector is being battered by the global economic downturn.

Meanwhile, Colorado conservationists are hoping for a helping hand from the incoming Obama administration when it comes to energy production on sensitive public lands in the state.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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