Bureau of Land Management officials said last week they'll do additional planning for oil and gas development on northwest Colorado's Roan Plateau, including better evaluations of ozone and regional air quality impacts, as well as giving full consideration to a citizen-backed proposal for drilling that balances energy development with protecting habitat for mule deer, elk and rare native trout.
“We will address the specific rulings in the court’s decision through this planning effort, which includes opportunities for robust public involvement,” said BLM Colorado State Director Helen Hankins. “Public involvement will be critical to BLM developing a full range of alternatives to consider in the supplemental EIS.”
The Roan Plateau leases have been in flux for more than a decade, subject to various planning labyrinths and court battles. In June 2012 a federal judge nixed a plan that had roots in the Bush Administration. The court essentially ordered the BLM to take another hard look at the plan.
It's not uncommon, under the strict provisions of federal environmental laws, for conservation groups to challenge federal land-use managers on the grounds that their plans don't meet requirements for agencies to honestly evaluate and compare the impacts of a wide range of alternatives before making long-term allocations of public resources.
At the heart of the law (The National Environmental Policy Act) is the call to use the best available science for the decision. In the case of the Roan, the court last June specifically mentioned the need to balance the quest for energy with consideration of the Roan Plateau's natural resources, besides fossil fuels.
The wildlife-rich area has become a focal point for conservation and community groups in the region, who say they want to make sure the Roan gets the protection it deserves, and fossil fuel companies, who see the rich gas reserves as ripe for development — worth a lot of money.
The Roan parcels were leased as part of sale that generated $113.9 million, with almost $56 million going to the State of Colorado.
The fossil-fuel industry, refers to the Roan as part of the Naval Oil Shale Reserves, and the energy companies are not amused. In a release, the Western Energy Alliance said the latest planning effort isn't needed, and that the BLM's new planning process amounts to "federal obstacles" to development.
The BLM could have fixed the existing plan relatively quickly and spurred economic growth in western Colorado by "getting on with allowing the development of American energy," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.
“It's now been over 15 years since Congress mandated that the natural gas on the Roan Plateau be developed. BLM spent an exhaustive 8 years conducting in-depth environmental analysis," Sgamma said in a prepared statement.
Conservation groups say that argument rings hollow because the fossil fuel industry already has millions of acres under lease that haven't been developed for oil and gas.
"There are plenty of places to drill without trashing the Roan," said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman, who represented the case that was decided last year.
"We're glad to see the agency is rolling up its sleeves and going back to the drawing board," Freeman said. "We're ready to work with BLM and make sure Roan gets the protection it needs."
The first phase of developing the supplemental environmental analysis is to gather public scoping comments that help identify issues. Those comments are due March 31. All the info on commenting, as well the subsequent planning stages, are outlined at this BLM website: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Programs/land_use_planning/rmp/roan_plateau.html .