BLM sinks local input to drill Roan Plateau

Local and environmental concerns tossed by the wayside in western Colorado

  • Vera Smith, with drilling pads at the base of the Roan Plateau in the background

  • Roan Plateau map


RIFLE, COLORADO — The last energy boom got a much warmer welcome. Bob Elderkin remembers it well: It started in the 1970s, when Exxon Corp. came to the Naval Oil Shale Reserve, a 73,000-acre plateau of public land that towers above Rifle and the Colorado River. The locals, he recalls, welcomed the company with open arms. In cash-strapped Garfield County, developing the oil shale gave young people a way to make a living without looking for work elsewhere.

But the process of heating the brittle, layered rock and “liberating” the oil was expensive and eventually proved uneconomical. Elderkin, a former range conservationist with the Bureau of Land Management, remembers what locals still call “Black Sunday,” in May 1982, when Exxon pulled out and oil shale development busted. Overnight, northwest Colorado’s economy took a nosedive.

Today, Garfield County is anticipating another energy boom, as the BLM prepares to lease much of the former oil shale reserve — now simply called the Roan Plateau — for natural gas development. But this time, the locals are cautious.

During the last boom, “the emphasis was really heavy on hiring local people,” says Elderkin, who now owns a horse ranch and sports a handlebar mustache and a belt buckle reading “All-Around Cowboy.” Natural gas drilling, in contrast, brings in mostly out-of-state workers, he says.

The county, too, has changed. Rifle, and its neighbors Silt and Parachute, which sit along busy Interstate 70, have become havens for ski-town workers and recreation junkies who can’t afford the chichi towns of Vail and Aspen. “People are moving here because of the lifestyle and the topography,” says Elderkin. Even traditional land-users such as ranchers and hunters are skeptical of the prospect of energy development.

Still, many locals took part in the BLM’s two-year planning process for the project, and last November, the agency came up with a plan that made everyone happy. Alternative F would have allowed energy companies to drill along the base of the plateau, but development on the cliffs and the top of the plateau would be restricted, preserving views, wildlife habitat, livestock grazing and recreational opportunities. The alternative also would have established 22,000 acres of wilderness study areas.

But just months later, the BLM deep-sixed Alternative F, to the outrage of locals. Critics say the agency has forsaken a cooperative process to bring its plans into line with the agenda of the Bush administration — an administration that, ironically, has been championing “local” solutions to land-management dilemmas such as this one.

Fast track to trouble

The Roan Plateau is within the Greater Piceance Basin, which, according to some studies, is the largest natural gas field on the continent. Dave Cesark of Williams Production Co., an energy-development company based in Tulsa, Okla., says the region could yield about 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to supply 2 million homes for 20 years. The Roan Plateau, he says, is in the basin’s “sweet spot.”

Two years ago, President Bush identified the Roan as one of 10 priority areas in his 2001 National Energy Plan, along with Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Wyoming’s Red Desert. That put the plateau on the “fast track” for gas development.

But by the BLM’s own estimates, 40 percent of the Roan’s public acreage is already open to leasing for gas development, and thousands of gas wells surround the base of the Plateau. “We’re already bending over backwards to accommodate (the gas) industry,” says Garfield County planner Randy Russell. “We feel not every foot of (the county) needs to be drilled.”

Russell was one of the numerous public officials who supported Alternative F, one of six options laid out in an initial scoping process last November. All five town and city councils in Garfield County and a large portion of the 11,000 public comments endorsed Alternative F. Environmental groups, hunting organizations, outdoors clubs and ranchers all stepped behind the proposal. “The only single interest that isn’t for Alternative F,” says Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, “is the gas industry.”

That was apparently enough. In March, the BLM removed Alternative F from its list of management options.

“C” is for ... what?

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who oversees the BLM, has been touring the country over the last three years, advocating local and state control of public lands under her “four C’s” doctrine: “Communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation.” Norton even repeated that mantra several times when she visited Colorado three months after the BLM yanked Alternative F.

But community leaders and environmentalists say the BLM’s decision to remove Alternative F is a mockery of Norton’s four C’s. Essential elements have disappeared from the BLM’s alternatives, says Vera Smith of the Colorado Mountain Club, including drilling restrictions for the top of the plateau and the designation of wilderness study areas.

BLM Field Manager Jamie Connell says the costs of evaluating so many alternatives forced the agency to remove Alternative F and one other option. She says “the key components to F are still in the range” of the four remaining alternatives, and that the final management plan could have elements from all of the alternatives now on the table. Connell adds that a court settlement by the Interior Department in Utah this April prevents the BLM from designating new wilderness study areas (HCN, 4/28/03: Wilderness takes a massive hit).

But other concerns have also been ignored, says Bob Elderkin, the former BLM range conservationist. He points out that the agency could limit the damage to the land by requiring gas companies to use “directional drilling,” punching multiple holes from a single well pad.

Elderkin and other locals are urging the BLM to reinstate protections for the cliffs and top of the plateau when it releases the draft environmental impact statement in September. “I’m not trying to keep them from harvesting the gas,” he says. “I’m just trying to minimize the surface disturbance and keep (the plateau) from looking like a minefield.”

And what about the four C’s? Vera Smith says, “It’s more like chicanery, corruption and collusion in the name of conservation.”

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management 970-947-2800

Colorado Environmental Coalition Pete Kolbenschlag, 970-527-7502

Colorado Mountain Club Vera Smith, 303-996-2746

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