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Valuing Colorado’s Roan Plateau

How much are oil and natural gas worth? I’m not asking how much a barrel of sweet crude is going for these days or what your gas bill from the utility company was last month. The real question isn’t how much fossil fuels cost in terms of dollars, but rather, what is worth sacrificing in their pursuit? Since the physical process of extracting oil and gas tends to severely despoil the surrounding environment, asking how much oil and gas are worth is akin to asking what nature is worth.

But in nature, there is value that dollar signs cannot quantify—take Colorado’s Roan Plateau for instance.

This biologically rich area in northwestern Colorado is special in just about every way a natural area can be special. Herds of deer and elk roam the high plateau, which features breathtaking landscapes, rare native plants, mountain lions, bears and biologically pure Colorado River Cutthroat trout. Unfortunately for the region’s flora and fauna, the plateau also sits atop abundant oil and gas reserves.

Back in the 2008, under the watchful eye of the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management leased to the oil and gas industry all 55,000 acres of public land in the rugged, undeveloped plateau, ignoring the wishes of then-Governor Bill Ritter, Colorado congressional leaders, local elected officials, and thousands of ordinary Coloradans.

The problem was that the oil and gas industry wasn’t planning to lease the land to establish a nature preserve—it was planning to drill the hell out of the place.

Earthjustice, representing a coalition of 12 conservation and wildlife groups, filed suit. They argued that BLM violated federal law by failing to allow public comment on its management plan for the Roan Plateau, by ignoring likely drilling impacts beyond 20 years, and by failing to establish adequate protections for areas of critical ecologic importance. BLM also violated federal law by failing to analyze near-term impacts to air quality and wildlife populations from adding more than 1,500 new wells in the Roan.

In other words, we argued that recklessly unearthing the oil and gas trapped below the plateau was not worth the ecological sacrifice. Apparently, a federal district court in Colorado agreed.

On June 25, U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger in Denver set aside the resource management plan approved in 2007 that would have allowed extensive oil and gas development in the Roan. Judge Krieger ruled that BLM’s plan should be set aside because the agency failed to consider a more balanced alternative that would have better protected the Roan’s wildlife, plants and pristine lands. The court also ruled that the BLM failed to take a hard look at air pollution from the oil and gas drilling.

While the decision is a significant victory, the fight to protect the Roan is not over. The BLM must now revise the area’s resource management plan, and undoubtedly the oil and gas industry will be lobbying to make the plan as fossil fuel friendly as possible. But our savvy, tenacious legal team will keep its watchful eye on the proceedings to ensure the law is enforced and to secure the biological integrity of the Roan Plateau.