06/26/2012 05:28 pm ET

Judge: Bush-Era Roan Plateau Drilling Plans Do Not Adequately Address Environmental Impacts

From The Colorado Independent's Troy Hooper:

A federal judge ruled Friday that a Bush-era auction of gas leases on the Roan Plateau failed to adequately address its environmental impacts or entertain alternative, less-intrusive drilling plans.

“Like many areas of Colorado, the area has been blessed with an abundance of two major resources, the uses of which are often in conflict,” U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger wrote in her 38-page opinion (pdf). “Its surface offers extensive and largely unspoiled scenic, ecological, and wildlife virtues. Below the surface the … area contains significant and valuable oil and gas reserves.”

The Roan Plateau is one of the state’s most biologically rich locales, home to black bears, bald eagles, elk, mule deer, cutthroat trout, rare plants and more. In the final months of the Bush presidency, the BLM auctioned off natural gas leases on lower and upper sections of the plateau despite objections from small businesses, environmental groups and others who endorsed a community-based proposal that would have left much of the Roan undisturbed thanks to advances in horizontal drilling technology.

Krieger wrote that the BLM neglected to consider alternative plans, like the community-based proposal, or responsibly address air-quality issues and the potential impacts of ozone emissions.

The Roan Plateau contains enough natural gas to power 4 million homes for 20 years, according to the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. Back in the 1920s, parts of the Roan Plateau were set aside as Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves to be tapped in case of war or national emergency. The lands were first managed by the Department of Defense then, in the 1970s, the Department of Energy. Energy companies began developing natural gas in fields adjacent to the public parts of the plateau a decade later, which prompted the federal government to get in on the action. After drilling some wells on its own, the Department of Energy decided that leasing the land would be both profitable and preserve public access to the recreational, scenic, and biological resources that are on the Roan’s surface.

“Energy companies can recover most of the gas while still protecting the most sensitive parts of the plateau,” Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said in an interview Monday. “We hope and expect they’ll take a look at the community -based plan. It’s one of a number of much more balanced approaches to managing the Roan. The BLM shouldn’t just follow the drill-everywhere approach the last administration took. … We’re talking about some of Colorado’s best and most important public lands. We don’t think the Roan should just be turned into a drilling field.”