70% of Roan to drillers

The ruling allows immediate drilling on the Western Slope plateau for a likely mother lode of natural gas. Foes consider lawsuits.

By Nancy Lofholm Denver Post Staff Writer

From the halls of Congress to living rooms in Garfield County, criticism is being heaped on the Bureau of Land Management for its decision to allow immediate drilling on nearly 70 percent of the Roan Plateau.

The controversial plan, announced Friday after a more than seven-year battle, places restrictions on drilling and puts some areas of the plateau along Interstate 70 west of Rifle off-limits. But critics charge the decision was made without proper comment and ignores requests from Gov. Bill Ritter's office and some of Colorado's congressional delegation to hold off on drilling.

"BLM's decision contradicts years of public involvement and should not stand," said Duke Cox of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, one of the groups considering a lawsuit to block implementation of the decision.

The decision pertains to more than 50,000 acres of the 73,602 acres included in the Roan planning area. The other 21,000 acres are being set aside for two more months of public comment.

The plan allows only 350 acres of the plateau to be drilled at one time. Drilling will take place in stages and will be done directionally to minimize surface disturbance.

Evan Dreyer, a spokesman for Ritter, expressed strong disappointment that the BLM issued the decision without giving the governor time for review as he had requested last week.

"This is one of the most important public-policy questions facing the state of Colorado right now. There was no imminent crisis. There was no reason for the BLM to rush a decision on this," Dreyer said.

"We are now reviewing all of our options."

Sen. Ken Salazar, who had joined Ritter in asking for a four-month review of the Roan Plateau Management Resource Plan, said he will look at options to stop the imminent drilling.

"The BLM has failed to establish a pressing need for such a rushed process and immediate development," Salazar said.

The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, the only group publicly applauding the decision Friday, issued a statement saying the plan provides "limited and balanced energy development" of what the group considers probably the richest unleased reserve of natural gas in the Lower 48 states, holding enough natural gas to heat 4 million homes for up to 20 years.

The Roan has been a flash point in oil and gas development in the Piceance Basin because the plateau soars to 9,000 feet in places and is home to rare fish and plant species. It is one of the few nearly untouched places in an area dotted with 20,000 gas wells. The Roan has long been used for hunting and recreation. Some drilling has taken place on private land on the plateau.

The plan approved Friday was crafted nearly a year ago after more than five years of public-comment gathering. Of the 75,000 comments submitted, 98 percent opposed drilling on the top of the plateau.

None of the plans the public reviewed were chosen.

Instead, a group of cooperating agencies, including the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, issued a plan in 2006.

The public did not have a chance to comment on that plan.

In releasing the record of the decision Friday, the BLM called the plan "the result of a highly collaborative public-planning process."