DOI, Colorado announce Roan Plateau development dispute settlement

A dispute over development of federal natural gas leases on the Roan Plateau in western Colorado that were issued in 2008 has been settled, the US Department of the Interior and Colorado state government jointly announced in Denver.

The settlement with leaseholders and environmental organizations, which was filed on Nov. 21 in US Appeals Court for the 10th Circuit, cancels 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008 and refunds $47.6 million in bonus bids and annual rental payments to Bill Barrett Corp. Two remaining leases on top of the plateau and 12 leases at its base will remain in place.

“This is great news for Colorado, and for the local community who has worked hard to strike a balance between protecting open space and energy development,” US Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell said. “The Roan Plateau is an extraordinary place, and this settlement is a model for what can be accomplished when we all come to the table and work to find solutions.”

Gov. John W. Hickenlooper (D) said, “This settlement will protect the valuable fish and wildlife resources atop the Roan Plateau, while clearing the way for orderly development to take place elsewhere in the planning area.”

A spectacular spot

Colorado’s two US senators, Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and US Rep. Scott Tipton (R), a Natural Resources Committee member whose district includes the Roan Plateau, also applauded the settlement.

The plateau is one of the state’s most ecologically diverse landscapes, and is known for its spectacular cliffs, waterfalls, and box canyons. It is a popular hunting, fishing, and back country recreation spot.

The US Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado state office held an August 2008 lease sale that included Roan Plateau parcels leased by a subsidiary of Vantage Energy Inc. The Englewood, Colo., independent producer subsequently sold a 90% stake in them to Bill Barrett, a larger Denver independent.

The Conservation Colorado Education Fund and nine other local and national environmental organizations sued in US District Court for Colorado on July 11, 2008, to overturn two BLM records of decision approving a management plan for the plateau and BLM’s decision to offer oil and gas leases in the planning.

The actions violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land and Policy Management Act, the groups charged. The court ruled in their favor on three issues on June 22, 2012, and Bill Barrett appealed that order to the federal appeals court, where the plaintiffs also filed a cross-appeal.

BLM announced in January 2013 that it would prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the Roan Plateau to address deficient environmental analysis in the 2008 decision. As part of this settlement agreement, BLM has agreed to consider a “settlement alternative” to the ongoing SEIS, which would make land covered by the canceled leases closed to new leasing while keeping land covered by the retained leases open for exploration and development.

‘A broad coalition’

“After many years of discord and disagreement, this settlement represents a path forward for the people of Colorado, for the oil and gas industry, and for those that seek to protect critical wildlife habitat,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said. “A broad coalition of local, state, industry and conservation leaders came together to make this possible.”

Meanwhile, Bill Barrett Chief Executive Scot Woodall said, “We are grateful for the efforts of the BLM and the support of our elected officials and our host community to see this agreement realized. The settlement ends a long period of uncertainty that has limited our ability to invest in development and to bring the Roan’s natural gas to market.”

Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith said, “The Roan Plateau’s lush valleys and pristine waterways are important to herds of mule deer, elk and, genetically pure Colorado River cut-throat trout, significantly enhancing the regions outdoor recreational economy. This settlement helps us achieve the goal of preserving important natural areas like the Roan Plateau in Colorado while oil and gas development continues in Colorado and across the West.”

Others weighed in on the settlement. Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, said the Denver organization of the region’s independent producers was pleased there was a path forward for energy development on the Roan Plateau after so many years.

“It’s unfortunate that the area, transferred to BLM specifically for the purpose of oil and natural gas development, has been held up for such a long time by those wishing to stop responsible energy development,” she told OGJ. “However, this compromise represents a way to get out of the courts and into the field, finally producing the energy that all Americans own and delivering it to them.”

Nada Culver, senior director for agency policy at The Wilderness Society, which was one of the lawsuit’s co-plaintiffs, noted, “Our ultimate path forward here in Colorado could serve as a model for other communities across the West. Common sense approaches to conservation and energy development in other regions could help prevent some of the conflict and concerns that arise when we lease in the wrong places.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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