As Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter prepares to take a stand on federal plans to allow thousands of oil and gas wells on Colorado’s Roan Plateau and surrounding land, an investigation by Environmental Working Group has found that drilling permits in the area have already more than doubled since 2004. An analysis of drilling data on federal and private land by EWG found that the number of wells permitted within the Bureau of Land Management’s 127,000-acre Roan Plateau Planning Area increased from 980 as of 2004 to 2,094 in January 2007. The Planning Area includes the Plateau – a spectacular wilderness, sportsman’s paradise and home to many important species. In spite of this tremendous surge of drilling, the BLM is poised to implement a plan for managing the area that would sacrifice many of the remaining undeveloped lands on the top of the Plateau for oil and gas. The drilling would provide a small amount of energy easily rendered unnecessary through conservation efforts as modest as implementing new energy efficiency standards for ceiling fans. The BLM’s plan for oil and gas drilling would also increase impacts at the base of the Plateau’s 2,000 foot escarpment.
Over the last 20 years, oil and gas drilling has steadily encroached on the pristine Roan Plateau, increasing by more than 20 fold. As of 1987, just 84 wells had been permitted in the Planning Area. Today, there are more than 2,000. As of 2005, 82 percent of the permitted wells had been drilled. Many of the well permits over the past 20 years have been issued on private land (EWG 2007) and have thus been beyond the reach of the BLMs power to manage drilling. The cumulative impact from this explosion of drilling, however, makes protecting public lands such as the Roan Plateau even more of a priority.
EWG used well data from IHS Energy of Englewood, Colo., to plot the wells on a Google satellite map that allows viewers to see the growth of well permits over the past two decades. BLM’s official estimate in a plan approved last June is 13 new drill pads and 210 wells on top of the Plateau, but the Bureau concedes that the number could be higher (BLM FEIS Wells 2006). “The plan…doesn’t limit the number of wells and the number of well pads,” BLM spokesman David Boyd told the Grand Junction Sentinel last year. “(There is) no number that says only 210 wells on top” (GJ Sentinel 2006). BLM also estimated that there will be 1,360 new wells on federal land around the Plateau’s base (BLM FEIS 2006). These figures do not include additional wells that may be drilled on private land.
Following release of a draft plan for the Roan, the BLM received 74,907 comments, more than 95 percent of them supporting protection of the Plateau and opposing drilling on top (BLM FEIS Comments 2006). U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, added an amendment to the House Energy Bill this summer that would have protected the top of the Plateau from drilling. But the bill was stripped of the provision before passing the House earlier this month (Kohler 2007). The Senate passed the measure on Friday, also without protections for the Plateau. The bill now heads back to the House (Mufson 2007). The BLM has projected that new wells on BLM land in the entire Roan Planning Area will produce 1.79 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 20 years (BLM Roan Facts 2007). That amount is less than a month of U.S. energy consumption over the same period (EIA 2007).
Natural gas extracted from the Plateau itself is expected to be just 240 billion cubic feet or about three days of U.S. consumption over a 20-year period (BLM Roan Production, EIA 2007). The Wilderness Society estimated in 2004 based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, that the quantity of gas produced from federal land in the Planning Area and on the Plateau itself would be even smaller, about 10 hours and five hours, respectively, of U.S. consumption (TWS Roan Energy 2004).* The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimated in 2001 that improved efficiency standards for ceiling fans would save the equivalent of 293 billion cubic feet of natural gas, more than the 240 billion cubic feet the BLM expects from the top of the Plateau (ACEEE Appliances 2001). Other measures in the energy bill currently working its way through Congress would result in even greater savings, the ACEEE reported (ACEEE Energy Bill 2007).** The BLM has postponed any issuance of oil and gas leases on the Plateau until Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter finishes a review of BLM’s management plan. Ritter had asked for 120 extra days to study the plan before it took effect (Kohler 2007).
According to BLM, the 120 days ended at the beginning of last week, but the BLM is waiting for Ritter’s comments which are expected before the end of the year. The BLM will consider the governor’s comments, but is not legally bound to follow them (Boyd 2007). Roan Plateau is home to a rich collection of wildlife including 33 species of mammals, 125 species of birds, and 12 species of reptiles and amphibians. The birds include the American Peregrine Falcon that was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999. The mammals include black bear, mountain lions, elk and mule deer. In addition, the Plateau contains several populations of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout, a signature species that is distinguished from other trout by their genetic purity (BLM Rivers Eligibility 2002).
The BLM found that eight streams on the Plateau meet the requirements to be designated part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System by Congress (BLM FEIS 2006 Rivers). The BLM also determined that four areas of the Plateau meet the requirements to be designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (BLM ACEC 2002). According to the BLM’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, drilling may have irreversible consequences. “Some areas of high-quality wildlife habitat would be lost or permanently altered,” the BLM reported. “Some of these impacts could never be reversed, especially those that eliminate genetically unique resources…such as genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout” (BLM FEIS 2006).
Despite BLM’s own recognition of the irreplaceable value of Roan Plateau and the surge of oil and gas drilling that has occurred around it, the agency is poised to open the last remaining, and most prized portion of the area to hundreds of new oil and gas wells that will almost certainly lead to the permanent destruction of an ecosystem and landscape that is unlike any other. The energy that might be extracted from the sacrifice of the Roan Plateau could be replaced by changes in our energy policy as small as implementing improved efficiency standards for ceiling fans.
The BLM should place the top of the Plateau off-limits to oil and gas drilling in its plan for the Roan Plateau Planning Area, consistent with thousands of comments the agency has received, and should carefully manage drilling around the Plateau’s base. If BLM does not act, Congress should pass legislation preventing oil and gas development on top of the Plateau, much as Congress did last year in protecting the Valle Vidal, another treasured portion of Western land in New Mexico that faced the prospect of drilling.
*The BLM estimates that each well in the Roan Planning Area will produce a weighted average of 1.14 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Because the BLM estimates that there will be 1,570 wells in the Roan Planning Area, the BLM estimates that these wells will produce a total of 1.79 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Because the BLM estimates that there will be 210 wells on top of the Plateau, the BLM estimates that these wells will produce 240 billion cubic feet of gas (BLM FEIS Wells 2006). The Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. will consume more than 510 trillion cubic feet of natural gas between 2009 and 2028, a period of 20 years or 7,300 days (EIA 2007). The gas produced in the entire planning area would amount to about 0.35 percent of total consumption over 20 years or .0035 X 7,300 days of consumption = 25.5 days. The gas produced from the top of the Plateau would amount to about 0.04 percent of total consumption over 20 years or .0004 X 7,300 days of consumption = 3.4 days.
**The ACEEE estimated that improved efficiency standards for ceiling fans would save 293.3 trillion BTUs of energy in the year 2020. There are approximately 1,000 BTUs in each cubic foot of natural gas (DoE 2007). Therefore, 293.3 trillion BTUs is equivalent to about 239 billion cubic feet of natural gas.