Ritter walking a Roan tightrope

He says he will opt for "modifications" of the plan - sure to rattle business interests or activists.

By Karen E. Crummy The Denver Post

Gov. Bill Ritter said Thursday that it's unlikely he will recommend a "wholesale" adoption of the federal drilling plan for the Roan Plateau.

"Our recommendations will be a modification, or some may say a departure," said Ritter, who is nearing the end of a 120-day review of the Bureau of Land Management's drilling proposal. "I've never been a person opposed to drilling on the Roan. But we need to make sure any modifications are environmentally sound and we maximize the economic benefit to the state."

No matter what recommendations the first-term governor suggests, he faces a no-win situation, some say. By taking a position, he will probably infuriate either a core constituency, such as environmentalists, or hefty business interests, which are already angry about some of Ritter's recent decisions.

If he's seen as too eager to allow drilling, he also could alienate those who regularly use the area for hunting, fishing and other recreation. Many of them, and other Western Slope voters, lean Republican but played a critical role in Ritter's win last year.

Additionally, the governor has to find a way to balance the concerns of powerful leaders in his own party, such as U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who is trying to stall drilling on the Roan for a year.

For all the risk, the payoff may be small. The governor's recommendations aren't legally binding and have questionable influence. In the end, the decision is solely controlled by the federal government.

"He is really walking a tightrope," said John Redifer, a political science professor at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. "I don't know where he stands to gain much in any decision he makes."

Ritter, however, says his recommendations are not guided by special-interest groups and his concerns aren't focused on possible political fallout.

"The question is how does the state protect a pristine place and, at same time, extract resources that can have economic benefit to the state?" Ritter said.

And while the governor acknowledges the federal government doesn't have to heed his suggestions, he said he's had a number of conversations with the Interior Department and believes that officials there will take his recommendations seriously.

Years of negotiations

The 52,000-acre development plan, announced in June, was hammered out by the BLM and the state's Natural Resources Department after years of negotiations. It limits drilling operations to no more than 1 percent of the plateau's surface land at any given time and requires that area to be restored before a new area can be drilled. Additionally, half the public lands on the plateau must be free of roads, drilling and pipelines.

After some political wrangling by Salazar last summer, Ritter was granted 120 days by the Interior Department to review the plan.

The plan's 1 percent drilling requirement irked the oil and gas industry, which has a $23 billion economic impact on the state, according to the Colorado Energy Research Institute. However, that is a better alternative than a recommendation from the governor that may further limit drilling.

"If that happens, there will be a continued negative political chill out there that gives companies pause as to whether they want to justify multibillion-dollar investments in projects," said Greg Schnacke, president of Americans for American Energy, which advocates for domestic drilling.

Environmentalists and recreation users are upset with the plan released in June because it permits drilling atop the Roan. Many advocate horizontal drilling from remote locations to avoid disturbing the surface. The energy industry contends horizontal drilling is much more costly and not perfected.

More protections urged

"It would be a missed opportunity if the governor does not push further for more balanced oil and gas drilling," said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

On Thursday, a group of Democratic state lawmakers sent Ritter a letter asking that he recommend more protections for wildlife and the environment, as well as a ban on surface drilling.

However, the latter is a deal-breaker for some Republican lawmakers who see drilling atop the Roan as a way to generate millions of dollars for health care, transportation and education.

Drilling moratorium

"If the governor supports a balanced approach to energy production on the Roan, we will sing his praises on the Capitol steps," said Republican state Sen. Josh Penry of Grand Junction. "If he doesn't go along with drilling on top of the Roan, we will continually remind him of the millions of dollars he walked away from that the state needs."

Although Democratic U.S. Reps. Mark Udall and John Salazar added an amendment to the energy bill that would have banned surface drilling, it was left out of the House energy bill approved Thursday.

Ken Salazar says he will seek a one-year moratorium on Roan drilling in the Senate, but that will probably not occur until next year.

Even if the BLM plan goes forward, it will take anywhere from "several months to a year" for the lease sales to go through, said BLM spokesman Jim Sample.