On Aug. 14, the BLM intends to lease all 55,000 acres of public land in the rugged, undeveloped plateau west of Rifle, ignoring the wishes of Governor Bill Ritter, Colorado congressional leaders, local elected officials and tens of thousands of ordinary Coloradans who have called for balanced management of the Roan's public lands.
The auction of leases would commit future federal administrations to let industry drill much of the Roan's backcountry, which includes some of Colorado's most important wildlife habitat.
A coalition of 12 conservation and wildlife groups argue that the agency violated federal law by failing to allow public comment on its final plan, by arbitrarily ignoring likely drilling impacts beyond 20 years and by failing to establish adequate protections for areas the agency admits have critical ecologic importance.
The 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 planning area to 2,000 existing and planned wells surrounding the plateau's unspoiled public lands, according to the lawsuit.
Since winter, state officials have been investigating a number of industrial spills of unknown chemicals that drillers and other operators neglected to report in a timely fashion. Wildlife experts worry that even one modest spill could wipe out one of the state's rare populations of genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout that persist in the Roan's isolated streams.
"Volunteers have put in hundreds of hours on water quality monitoring and stream projects to improve those cutthroat streams," said Ken Neubecker, an angler and member of Colorado Trout Unlimited, one of the plaintiffs. "We don't have to trash the Roan and jeopardize its wildlife in order for industry to get at the gas. Drillers will come and they will go. But once a stream is poisoned, those fish are gone forever."
According to the BLM, industry already has the right to drill more than 5 million acres of federal acres of federal minerals in Colorado. Drillers also own or control many of the private lands in the Roan Plateau Planning area, including tracts on top of the plateau. More than 1,300 producing natural gas wells have been drilled in the area, and the state has issued permits to drill almost 900 more. The rigs currently working from private lands on the plateau's top flatly contradict claims by industry supporters that a more thoughtful approach would in effect block development.
By leasing the entire plateau now, BLM's plan would provide industry little or no incentive to deploy or adapt drilling technology to reduce or eliminate impacts to public lands. In 2000, drillers in the Piceance Basin claimed directional drilling was too expensive. Since then, not only has directional drilling become the industry standard, operators have found it saves them money. By 2007, Williams Company, one of the major operators in the basin, claimed it could hit an underground target half a mile from a drill pad. Some 80 percent of the gas under the Roan can already be reached from the sides and from private lands on top, and further advances are all but assured.
"The bottom line is that western Colorado stands to lose one of its most valued natural resources because it has become a pawn in a single-minded drilling push led by the industry and Washington," said Steve Smith of The Wilderness Society. "The natural gas industry is already at maximum capacity, and the BLM could easily take the time to be sure they do things right on the Roan. Instead they are illegally charging forward at the expense of our wildlife and communities."
In hearing after hearing and through multiple public comment processes, local government officials, sportsmen, outfitters and tens of thousands of citizens have urged that options like these be considered and have clamored for a management plan that respects other public and traditional uses besides energy development.
Earlier this year, the BLM rejected a request by Gov. Ritter to expand wildlife habitat protections and lease the plateau in phases to provide better economic returns for Colorado and allow industry to develop more sophisticated, less-damaging drilling technologies.
BLM officials have rebuffed all such efforts, claiming -- falsely according to the lawsuit -- that Congress mandated that the entire plateau be leased at once. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar has drafted legislative language that intends to eliminate any confusion for agency leaders by requiring that the plateau be leased in phases, as Ritter recommended. The agency has steadfastly refused to alter its damaging drilling plan in response to the clear expressed objections by Colorado's elected leaders.
BLM also ignored the recommendations of its own field staff and other cooperating agencies, failed to consider the impact of its plan on the region's declining air quality, and rejected alternatives that would protect the Roan's backcountry recreation and wilderness-quality lands, in spite of overwhelming public support and the agency's own analysis that such lands are a limited and quickly diminishing resource in the Piceance Basin.
"No one wanted it to come to this," said Jim Angell, attorney for Earthjustice who filed the lawsuit. "Our clients have tried and tried, but talking to the BLM is like talking to a brick wall. Federal law requires these lands be managed for multiple public uses, not turned over to the highest bidder at the earliest possible opportunity. When a government agency ignores its legal obligations, it's up to citizens to hold them accountable."