Ritter asks to expand protected areas on Roan Plateau

http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20071220/NEWS/289003089

BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
December 20, 2007

DENVER – Gov. Bill Ritter said Thursday he asked federal land managers to expand areas of the Roan Plateau that would be off-limits to natural gas drilling, calling the western Colorado landmark “a very special place.”

Ritter said he and his staff also continue to negotiate with the Bureau of Land Management on how the rest of the federal land on the plateau is developed.

The Roan Plateau has become a battle ground in the push for more domestic energy production because it’s both rich in natural gas – several trillion cubic feet in deposits – and rich in wildlife and ecological diversity.

“I’m confident that we’re making progress on what I believe is a uniquely Colorado solution,” Ritter said during a news briefing in his office.

The BLM issued a final management plan in June that covered about 70 percent of the 73,602 acres of federal land on the plateau. A final decision is pending on areas deemed environmentally sensitive – about 30 percent of the federal land – because the areas weren’t adequately described in the plan.

The proposal for the Roan Plateau had been in the works for seven years but Ritter sought, and received, more time to study it because he had just taken office in January.

In comments sent Thursday to the BLM, Ritter recommended expanding the environmentally critical areas to be protected from the 21,034 acres in the agency’s plan to 36,184 acres. The Colorado Division of Wildlife previously endorsed the larger acreage.

The Ritter administration is also suggesting changes to the plan for the rest of the federal land even though the BLM gave final approval to that part of the proposal. He said talks with BLM and Interior Department officials have been productive.

“I think we’re making progress on a plan that is better than the current one,” Ritter said.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency will have to review the state’s suggestions to determine if they can mesh with the plan. “We want to keep working with them,” he said.

Ritter and Harris Sherman, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the earliest the BLM would issue any gas leases for the area would likely be late next summer. They said that should give them time to continue talking to federal officials.

State officials have suggested phasing in leases on top of the plateau rather than leasing the land all at once. Sherman said he believes that would increase what companies are willing to pay because the current plan calls for the development to occur in stages. He said companies are unlikely to pay a lot of money for leases they can’t develop for a while.

The state and federal governments split the revenue from federal leases offered in auctions.

Sherman said another advantage of pacing the leases over several years is that as technology improves, the impacts of drilling will be reduced.

The BLM’s plan projects 193 well pads and 1,570 wells over 20 years, including 13 pads and 210 wells on top. The BLM says the proposal would preserve 51 percent of land on top of and below the plateau while allowing recovery of more than 90 percent of the natural gas.

On top, the BLM calls for oil and gas drilling to be done in stages and clusters to limit disturbance to 1 percent of the federal land at any time. Development would be focused on slopes with less than a 20 percent angle.

Environmentalists, hunting and angling groups and some area residents oppose plans to drill on top of the plateau. The Roan Plateau, about 180 miles west of Denver, looms over the Colorado River and alternates between open flat spots, deep canyons and rugged peaks as high as 9,000 feet.

The plateau is home to the state’s largest deer and elk herds, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, bears, rare plants and genetically pure native cutthroat trout dating to the last ice age. Local elected officials have said the Roan Plateau, which draws hunters and anglers from across the country, contributes millions of dollars to the area economy.

The area also sits atop the region’s largest oil shale reserves and enough natural gas, according to industry estimates, to heat every home in Colorado for a quarter century.

Some industry groups and elected officials have criticized efforts to block drilling on the plateau, saying the country needs to reduce its reliance on foreign fuel. They also said delays could cost the state billions of dollars from leases and mineral royalties.

Reps. Mark Udall and John Salazar and Sen. Ken Salazar, all Colorado Democrats, proposed unsuccessful bills to ban or postpone drilling on top of the Roan Plateau.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said it was pleased that Ritter recognizes the plateau’s potential resources and that technology can be used to extract the gas in an environmentally sensitive way.

Ritter’s recommendations for the plateau drew mixed reactions from conservation groups.

“We are really pleased that the governor endorsed the original recommendations of the Division of the Wildlife” on environmentally sensitive areas, said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, made up of hunters, anglers and wildlife advocates.

But some members of the Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited expressed concern that drilling would be allowed on top of the plateau.

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