Salazars offer compromise on Roan Plateau drilling

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and his brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, both Colorado Democrats, said Tuesday they will drop their opposition to natural gas drilling atop the state's majestic Roan Plateau, while they work to minimize environmental impacts.

The Salazars said their new stance is in the spirit of compromise, after they previously sought a one-year moratorium or even an outright ban on drilling on the Western Slope landmark.

Those efforts were killed in the Senate version of the energy bill.

"We may not get everything we want, but this is a pretty good compromise," Rep. Salazar said Tuesday in a news conference at the state Capitol.

The Salazars' approach aligns them with Gov. Bill Ritter, who last month said he would work with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to minimize the impact of gas drilling atop the plateau.

In recent years, the Roan - which includes 74,000 acres of federally owned land about 180 miles west of Denver - has become a battleground between the energy industry and conservationists.

The plateau contains an estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, according to the Interior Department, enough to heat 4 million homes for 20 years. It also is touted by hunters, outdoors enthusiasts and environmental activists for its wildlife, trout streams and topography.

The BLM last summer issued its first "record of decision," or a plan covering 53,000 acres of the Roan's top and sides, that Ritter reviewed over 120 days, ending in December. In the spring, the federal agency will finalize its second plan to cover the remaining 21,000 acres, categorized as environmentally critical areas.

Ritter has proposed increasing the environmentally critical areas to 36,000 acres, which he said would allow for greater protection of wildlife habitats and still allow narrow corridors of accessibility to drillers.

The Salazars said they would work that proposal into new legislation, with the support of Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs.

Sen. Salazar said he'd propose a phased leasing of the plateau, beginning with the gas-rich zones in the initial years and graduating to marginal zones. He also proposed a minimum lease bonus payment of $28,000 per acre by energy companies.

The Salazars' shift in position was hailed in some industry quarters but greeted with disappointment elsewhere.

"In the end, the winners will be Colorado taxpayers and local governments who will benefit from a huge potential revenue windfall, which our state badly needs," said Greg Schnacke, president and CEO of Americans For American Energy - a Golden-based interest group that has pushed for drilling atop the Roan.

Trout Unlimited, an environmental group that opposes drilling atop the Roan, said sportsmen in Colorado still think natural gas can be attained from beneath the Roan without drilling on public lands on the plateau's top.

"The gas isn't going anywhere, and with some patience, we can wait for technology to move along and allow us to get at the gas without sacrificing habitat and hunting and fishing opportunity," said Corey Fisher, a TU field coordinator on oil and gas issues.

Meanwhile, it's not clear how Ritter's proposal or new legislation by the Salazars and Udall would impact the BLM's first record of decision.

"As with any legislation, we follow any new rule that Congress approves and the president signs," BLM spokeswoman Jamie Gardner said. or 303-954-2976

Change in direction

Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. John Salazar say they will, along with Rep. Mark Udall, all Colorado Democrats, propose legislation to:

* Allow oil and gas drilling atop the Roan Plateau, as per a federal decision last year, but lease those acres in a phased manner.

* Require a minimum lease bonus payment of $28,000 per acre. The federal government owns about 74,000 acres on the Roan, with the first decision covering more than 53,000 acres. A second decision expected this spring will cover the remaining "environmentally critical" areas.

* Increase the environmentally critical areas from 21,000 acres to more than 36,000 acres, with narrow corridors through those lands being accessible to drillers.

* Increase and restore the state's share of mineral-leasing revenues to 50 percent from 48 percent in the Omnibus Appropriations bill that was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush.

* Transfer excess funds from the Anvil Points oil shale trust fund back to the Western Slope communities to invest in land and water protection and on roads affected by oil and gas development.