GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - The Bureau of Land Management on Monday issued leases for future drilling on the Roan Plateau following a U.S. Department of Interior decision to reject protests filed against the sale of those parcels.The same day the BLM announced the dismissal of the Roan protests, 10 environmental groups filed a motion in federal court seeking to block the BLM from issuing those disputed Roan leases. The groups - which are currently suing the BLM to overturn its management plan for the Roan Plateau Planning Area - are also requesting that U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger block any drilling activity those leases may allow and expedite consideration of the injunction request, court records show.Steven Hall, a spokesman for the BLM, said the Department of Interior decided to reject the lease sale protests because they basically contested the plan for drilling in the Roan Plateau Planning Area, "rather than bringing any new information to light.""We determined issuing the leases were in accordance with direction we have gotten from Congress to lease the Roan Plateau and that our (environmental analysis) supported that decision," Hall said. Additional environmental analysis will have to occur before drilling may occur in the Roan Plateau Planning Area, according to federal officials.The August sale of 31 parcels encompassing about 54,600 acres in the Roan Plateau Planning Area brought in about $114 million. Colorado is expected to receive its share from the sale, which is about $56 million, in the next few days. In many instances, groups or residents can appeal any rejection of a lease sale protest to the Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals. But since the protests were determined by the Interior Department and not by the BLM, the resolution of any challenges to the Roan leases will have to be resolved in federal court, Hall said. "It is not common, but not unheard of," Hall said of an Interior Department move to uphold or reject lease sale protests. Many groups, including the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the state's Department of Natural Resources, filed protests against the sale of Roan parcels. Gov. Bill Ritter criticized the BLM for its August lease of Roan parcels, saying his plan to lease the area in phases was ignored. He said that plan would have better protected wildlife in the area and would have brought in more money for the state. Many environmental and sportsmen groups blasted the BLM for ignoring the governor's proposals for the area.A phone call to Ritter's spokesman seeking comment late Monday was not returned.Earlier in the year, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, introduced legislation to implement Ritter's proposals for the Roan Plateau. However, that legislation has never cleared Congress.Many groups have fought to prevent drilling in the Roan Plateau Planning Area because it provides important habitat for mule deer, elk and genetically pure native cutthroat trout.However, it is also a lucrative target for natural gas development since the area is estimated to hold about 8.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Drilling there could provide Colorado with about $428 to $565 million in revenues over the next 20 years, according to the BLM.
As the BLM was working to announce the rejection of the Roan protests on Monday, the coalition of 10 environmental groups - which include the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the Wilderness Society and the Colorado Mountain Club - filed a court motion seeking a temporary injunction that would block any leases from being issued. The environmental groups earlier launched a lawsuit against the BLM in July, seeking to overturn the agency's management plan for the Roan Plateau Planning Area. They argue the agency's plan for natural gas development there violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The federal government and Vantage Energy - which paid about $57 million for 19 parcels on the Roan and petitioned to be a party to the lawsuit - have denied those allegations.The groups' say that that the BLM rejected proposals that would have either had the agency defer issuing any Roan leases until after their lawsuit was resolved or delay issuing leases for a short period while the motion for the injunction is heard and decided, court records show.The court filing also said attorneys for theBLM refused to provide any date when the agency might issue any leases in the Roan Plateau Planning Area. "They would only say that the BLM could issue the leases at any time after Friday," court records show. In the motion for the injunction, the environmental groups argued they would face irreparable harm with the issuance of any leases because the "BLM will make an irreversible commitment to development of the Roan Plateau." Mike Chiropolos, lands program director for the Western Resource Advocates and one of the attorneys representing the 10 environmental groups, said that the federal government knew about the lawsuit and the environmental groups' intention to file a temporary injunction before it decided to reject the Roan protests and issue the Roan leases."Folks have to ask themselves, 'What is the big rush?' when it would only take a few more weeks to get a court ruling on the legality of the leases," Chiropolos said. "What does the BLM have to hide? What is the BLM worried about? What the issue here is that the BLM is pulling out all the stops to do everything in its power to silence its critics, ignore the local public and the state of Colorado."Chiropolos said the groups are confident in their legal claims and they are "guardedly optimistic" Judge Krieger will rule in their favor for the temporary injunction.Both the BLM and Vantage Energy opposed the request for a preliminary injunction, court records show.Hall said the BLM "certainly feels the decision-making" on the Roan followed necessary environmental analysis and other applicable federal regulations. He said the agency will review the request for a temporary injunction and determine what effect, if any, it might have on the litigation or future management of the Roan Plateau Planning Area.
Jon Bargas, director of public affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said he was pleased with the BLM's issuance of Roan leases."In 1997, Congress directed the BLM to lease these lands for energy development 'as soon as practical,'" said Bargas, adding that the agency's plan for the area is the most environmentally restrictive plan for managing oil and natural gas development on public lands. "We believe that a 'practical' time-frame has long passed and that now is the time to allow responsible energy development on these lands."Steve Torbit, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, said his group was not at all surprised that the protests were rejected. "Look what they did to Gov. Bill Ritter," he said. "When they give the governor the cold shoulder and don't even spend any time working with him or trying to adopt any of the creative things that Gov. Ritter supplied. Were we surprised? No."Torbit said the coalition of environmental groups and more conservative sportsmen groups that have sought to protect the Roan Plateau is a testament that people from many walks of life "know the value of the Roan and say in a collective voice that the BLM should have and must do better."U.S. District Judge John Kane had been presiding over the environmental groups' lawsuit against the BLM, but it has since been "randomly drawn and assigned" to Krieger, court documents show.Contact Phillip Yates: email@example.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO