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Know the West

Compromise on Colorado's Roan Plateau

Industry and conservationists reach a deal to protect tens of thousands of acres.


The energy-rich Roan Plateau has been synonymous with the larger battle over oil and gas development on Colorado’s Western Slope for over a decade.

Rising 3,000 feet over small energy boomtowns with names like Rifle and Silt along the Colorado River, the former Naval Oil Shale Reserve hosts wilderness-quality roadless areas, a rare strain of native Colorado cutthroat trout, plants found nowhere else in the world, and crucial mule deer and elk habitat. It also happens to contain an estimated 8.9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas; the Bureau of Land Management’s 2008 sale of mineral leases to companies hoping to tap those riches was the highest grossing in the Lower 48 in history, at $113.9 million.

Roan Plateau
The Roan Plateau rises above the Rulison Gas Field.

As you might expect, throwing those volatile elements together has produced results akin to dropping a chunk of pure potassium directly into a glass of water (hint: KaBOOM!). Shortly before the lease sale, ten environmental groups filed suit over BLM’s management plan governing the area, and the energy companies holding the leases joined the agency against them as defendants. In 2012, a district judge sent the plan back to the BLM on the grounds that it had failed to adequately analyze more protective options as well as air quality impacts; both the energy companies and environmental groups appealed. The fight appeared as though it would only continue to escalate and even helped inspire a murder mystery novel whose hunting guide heroine prefers to end a long day by downing a cold beer in a hot shower.

But on Friday, November 21, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took the podium at the state capital building to announce that the parties involved had reached a landmark settlement that seems to make everyone happy. Under its terms, 16 of the 18 leases issued on the top of the plateau will be canceled, effectively protecting about 90 percent of its 38,000 acres of federal land -- and the bulk of the plateau’s sensitive resources -- from future energy development. One lease will also be canceled at the plateau’s base. Companies will be able to persist with plans for the remaining 16,000 acres of leases there, albeit with provisions prohibiting surface disturbance on about half the area to protect wildlife. Bill Barrett Corp., which holds the cancelled leases, will receive a $47.6 million refund.

“We are grateful for the efforts of the BLM and the support of our elected officials and our host community to see this agreement realized,” Scot Woodall, CEO of Bill Barrett Corporation, said in a statement. “The settlement ends a long period of uncertainty that has limited our ability to invest in development and to bring the Roan’s natural gas to market.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are lauding the agreement as a model that could be exported to other high conflict public lands, demonstrating the kind of effective compromise that could have staved off a lawsuit in the first place. The preemptive approach has been increasingly in vogue in recent years. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, for example, has struck compromise deals in northeastern Utah with Bill Barrett and another company called Anadarko, protecting wilderness-quality lands from development while allowing drilling to go forward unchallenged in other spots – an approach to avoiding future litigation that SUWA staffers say was enabled by its successful record of past litigation. The group has also been actively engaged in an effort led by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to execute a similar compromise on a much broader swath of contentious public lands in the state.

But just as that issue has yet to be settled, the Roan conflagration could flare up yet again. While the BLM has agreed to analyze the settlement as one if its possible approaches to managing the area, that doesn’t mean the agency has to select it. And if it doesn’t, any of the litigants could pile back on. Still, EarthJustice attorney Mike Freeman is optimistic. “Given the broad support from both industry and conservationists, I have hope that the BLM will adopt it,” Freeman told me shortly after the settlement was announced. Now six years into representing environmental interests in the case, Freeman’s not sure what he’ll be tackling next. “I don’t doubt something will come along that demands our attention,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’m going to have a beer tonight first.” No word on whether he plans to do so in a hot shower.

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor.

Image courtesy of Flickr user, SkyTruth