Environmental groups including Trout Unlimited released a poll Tuesday that they said shows nearly a quarter of voters in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which includes western Colorado, oppose any more drilling on the Roan.
GARFIELD COUNTY - With as many as 5,000 wells already drilled in northwest Colorado and another 55,000 possibly on the way, two of Colorado's top elected officials are questioning the rush to pursue natural gas drilling in unique landscapes such as the Roan Plateau.
Gov. Bill Ritter and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, both Democrats, got a bird's-eye view of northwest Colorado's dramatic landscapes and intensive energy development Tuesday morning. Pilot Doug Sheffer, owner of DBS Helicopters, flew the two over the plateau, and they also touched down in Moffat County's Vermillion Basin, another area of controversy when it comes to energy development on federal lands.
In a press conference afterward at the Garfield County Regional Airport, Salazar said some 4,000 to 5,000 natural gas wells already have been drilled in northwest Colorado, and a total of 60,000 eventually may be drilled in the region. With so much development coming, it shouldn't be a problem for the federal government to honor Ritter's request for 120 days to review the Bureau of Land Management's plans for drilling on the Roan, Salazar said.
An opponent of drilling on top of the Roan, Salazar said he recognizes that the BLM has decided to allow gas development there and elsewhere in the region.
"But as it moves forward with leasing of those areas .... it is a perfectly reasonable thing for the governor of this state to want to make sure that we don't destroy our natural resources, our sustainability, along the way," he said.
The BLM worked with the state in developing its Roan plan, but Ritter took office this year and said his new administration should be given a chance to offer input. The federal government denied that request.
"We just want a productive conversation with the BLM," said Ritter.
He said he never has come out in opposition to drilling on the Roan, but it is one of the last places that drilling should be allowed to occur. He is hoping that directional drilling eventually might allow development to occur without well pads having to be placed on the plateau top.
Like Salazar, Ritter questioned the federal government's push for more drilling in a region where so much already is occurring.
"We don't need to be gluttons about this. We need to be thoughtful and prudent about how we go about that extraction, and we need to consider the air, water, wildlife as other resources that compete," Ritter said.
Salazar said he would use every means at his disposal to try to persuade the Interior Department to grant Ritter's request for more time. Already, he has placed a Senate "hold" on President Bush's nomination of James Caswell to be the new BLM director until Interior Secretary Kirk Kempthorne agrees to the time extension. Salazar said he plans to further press his case in an upcoming meeting with Kempthorne.
In a news release later Tuesday by state Senate Republicans, state Sen. Josh Penry of Fruita said Ritter and Salazar were engaging in "Democratic election politics" rather than developing any constructive alternative for managing the Roan Plateau.
He noted that the BLM's current plan is based in large part on a state proposal crafted under the leadership of Rifle resident Russell George, who was director of the state Department of Natural Resources under previous governor Bill Owens. George, a Republican, is now Ritter's transportation director. Penry called George's proposal "the most restrictive, environmentally minded production plan in the history of the American West."
Harris Sherman, who is Ritter's DNR director and joined in on Tuesday's overflight, said he has talked previously to George about issues such as the Roan, but not recently.
"This is a new administration. We are talking about a fresh look at past policies and practices," he said.
Ritter suggested Tuesday that Penry might be politicizing the Roan issue himself. Penry and state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, have proposed using much as $1 billion or more in revenues from drilling on the Roan to create trust funds to help meet higher education needs and pay for local impacts of energy development. Ritter said he wouldn't rule out that idea. But he questioned how far natural gas revenues from the plateau could go toward meeting long-term higher education needs, and said it's important not to let state budget discussions become focused on the Roan when so much other gas development is occurring.
"I think making it about the Roan Plateau is a way of introducing really a distraction into the conversation about whether we need to rush to the Roan or rush to the Vermillion" to drill, he said.
Mary Ellen Denomy, a petroleum accountant who attended Tuesday's press conference, said that another reason to slow down is that the region lacks sufficient gas pipelines serving other markets. That means local producers are having to sell for less than the national average, which reduces state and local government revenues.
Environmental groups including Trout Unlimited released a poll Tuesday that they said shows nearly a quarter of voters in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which includes western Colorado, oppose any more drilling on the Roan. Another half, including 47 percent of Republicans, want further drilling restricted to existing sites near its base, the groups said.