Roan Plateau drilling battle yields deal for beauty, wildlife and gas
Federal land managers and the oil and gas industry on Friday announced a deal designed to end a decade-long battle over drilling on western Colorado's Roan Plateau, a lofty oasis rich in wildlife and natural gas.
All but two of 19 leases the feds issued in 2008 letting Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. drill on top of the plateau will be canceled. And the government will reimburse Barrett $47.6 million. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Friday the land never should have been leased.
"There are huge lessons learned here that will help us in the future," Jewell said in a Denver Post interview.
This dispute ranks among the nation's more complicated cases in trying to balance the oil and gas boom with preserving a pristine environment, she said.
"There are places that are too special to develop."
Conservation groups have fought for years to keep the 54,000-acre Roan Plateau from becoming an industrial zone.
Under the legal settlement, drilling still will be allowed on land in canyons and on 16,000 acres around the base of the plateau. But that won't happen for at least two years — after the BLM completes a large-scale plan for limiting surface impact. Companies likely would be required to drill horizontally from outside ecologically sensitive terrain.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, Jewell, BLM director Neil Kornze and others gathered in the state Capitol hailed the settlement as a model for future cooperation to resolve drilling disputes. The Department of Justice has approved it.
Located northwest of Rifle, the Roan Plateau rises from the Colorado River valley to an undulating open area with arching ridges, buttresses and spires at elevations up to 9,200 feet. Hunters, in particular, revere the incredible beauty and wildlife.
"It's hard. Neither side is terribly happy," Hickenlooper said. "But both of them see it as progress. This is encouraging.
"You really had a head-on collision of values. It took time. Our job was to keep everybody at the table talking. ... It's amazing the solutions you can find."
Barrett president Scot Woodall said not being able to drill for gas on 17 leased parcels means less revenue. But Woodall emphasized benefits of certainty that allows his company to plan.
"We're a company that is transitioning from natural gas to oil," he said.
Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said the settlement will help protect land because surface occupancy limits must be set for parcels around the base of the plateau.
"The most delicate areas at the base will be protected," Freeman said.
Oil and gas companies have envisioned drilling on the Roan Plateau for years.
Around 2000, BLM officials began developing a plan to lease rights to companies interested in an estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The officials finalized that plan in 2008 — allowing for leasing 54,631 acres for drilling.
They auctioned leases in August 2008, raising $113.9 million — a record for federal onshore lease sales in the Lower 48 states. Colorado got nearly half the money and divided it among communities to offset environmental harm.
The leasing set off a storm of criticism and legal wrangling.
In June 2012, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger weighed in, ruling that the BLM's management plan allowing drilling was flawed. Krieger ordered a proper plan.
The area is one of the most ecologically diverse in Colorado, including cliffs and waterfalls, habitat for trout, mountain lions, bears and rare plants. Massive elk and deer roam the plateau amid grouse during summer and descend during winter into tree-studded side canyons cut by creeks.
"This is really a big win," said John Gale, the National Wildlife Federation National Sportsmen's Outreach campaign manager, "for wildlife and energy development, too."
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, email@example.com or twitter.com/finleybruce