FRISCO, Colo. — A 15 year battle over fossil fuel drilling on northwest Colorado’s remote and rugged Roan Plateau ended last week with the type of compromise that’s rare in energy showdowns.
Under the court-approved deal, the Bureau of Land Management will develop a new plan for the Roan that would protect the most important natural areas atop the 34,000 acre plateau while enabling some drilling in other areas, especially around the base of the plateau.
Energy companies agreed to avoid building roads and drill pads in the plateau’s most sensitive reaches. Both sides said they won’t raise any legal challenges to the deal if the BLM adopts the development option spelled out so far. Specifically, the agreement cancels 17 existing leases atop the Roan Plateau. The Bill Barrett Corporation, which bought the leases in 2008, will get a $47 million refund. Two leases on top of the plateau, as well as others along the base, will remain valid.
The most recent wrangling over the Roan started in 2008, when the BLM leased off the parcels under a Bush administration plan that critics described as a sweetheart deal for energy companies. But the history of the Roan goes all the way back to the 1910s, when the area was set aside as a Naval Petroleum Reserve.
That Bush-era deal was successfully challenged in 2012, when a federal court ordered the BLM to take a closer look at regional air quality impacts and other parts of the drilling plan
The BLM estimates there are about 4.2 trillion cubic feet of gas under the top of the plateau and another 4.7 trillion cubic feet under the lands below the rim, including the cliffs of the plateau, which could generate close to $1 billion for the federal government.
The deal has bipartisan political backing from Democratic U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, and the energy industry offered a positive response to the announcement from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
“For the first time in decades Western Colorado’s natural gas companies are very close to securing responsible drilling on and around the Roan Plateau.This compromise will provide decades of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for local communities,” said David Ludlam, director of West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“After many years of discord and disagreement, this settlement represents a path forward for the people of Colorado, for the oil and gas industry, and for those that seek to protect critical wildlife habitat,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “A broad coalition of local, state, industry and conservation leaders came together to make this possible.”
For environmentalists, the Roan Plateau was one of several lines in the sand, similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved, would bring tar sands oil from Canada across the Great Plains states. Throughout the fights over the Roan, organizations like Trout Unlimited and Conservation Colorado touted the natural resource values of the plateau and vowed to take every possible legal step to protect the area.
The drilling industry argued that the Roan had long been foreseen as an area for energy development. In 1977, the reserves were transferred to the U.S. Department of Energy, which immediately drilled 24 natural gas wells below the plateau.
In 1997, through a defense spending bill, the reserves were transferred to the Department of Interior. The measure also required the Department of Interior to start leasing the area “as soon as practicable.” The energy industry hung its hat on that so-called transfer act for many years as it argued for the right to pursue energy development on the plateau.
“Conservationists, hunters, anglers and wildlife advocates welcome this settlement and the opportunity it provides to conserve an area rich in wildlife and unparalleled scenic vistas,” Conservation Colorado director Pete Maysmith said in a prepared statement. “The Roan Plateau’s lush valleys and pristine waterways are important to herds of mule deer, elk and genetically pure Colorado River cut throat trout, significantly enhancing the regions outdoor recreational economy.”
[ Image of oil and gas development on the Roan by airphotona.]