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Salazar: ‘Protect the top’ of plateau

Dennis Webb

Congressman-elect John Salazar is reiterating the support he voiced during his election campaign for protecting the top of the Roan Plateau from natural gas drilling.”I’d like to make sure that we do protect the top in any which way possible,” Salazar said this week in a telephone interview.He said he needs to take a closer look at the plateau draft plan before taking a formal position on the issue.In late November, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management identified a preferred draft plan for the plateau that proposes forestalling natural gas development on the plateau top until 80 percent of the drilling forecast for the surrounding lowlands in the next 20 years takes place. The BLM has estimated that threshold could be reached in as little as 10 years, or possibly more than 20. Environmentalists say it could arrive in as little as seven or eight years.Salazar, a Democrat from the Alamosa area, said he hopes renewable energy sources will continue to develop in the next decade to the point that they will provide an alternative to drilling on the plateau top. He said he believes oil and gas companies can play a part in developing renewable energy.He said he isn’t against natural gas development, but added, “I’m also very concerned about protecting things that mean a lot to local communities.”During an earlier stage in the Roan Plateau planning process, all the municipalities in the county joined environmentalists in taking stands against drilling on the top of the plateau, located northwest of Rifle.In October, Salazar flew over the plateau and praised its beauty.”I think it would be absurd to drill on top of the plateau,” Salazar said then.His opponent in November’s election, Republican Greg Walcher, had been head of the state Department of Natural Resources when the DNR recommended allowing drilling on top, but limiting densities of well pads to one per 160 acres.Salazar will take office in January. He will represent Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of the Western Slope, along with the Pueblo area and San Luis Valley.Salazar said he has spoken with Jamie Connell, the BLM’s Glenwood Springs field manager, about the plateau draft plan. He said that though he needs to research the issue further, he’s always been a proponent of open space, protection of natural resources and wildlife habitat, and deferring to local opinions in decisionmaking.”I want to make sure that it’s the decision of the people who actually live in that area,” he said of the plateau plan.Salazar said he likes to try to reach consensus on issues, and is open to suggestions from constituents on what kind of plan he should support for the plateau.Salazar isn’t sure how important his views on the plateau will be. The plateau is in his district, but Salazar also will be a freshman member of the minority party in Congress. He said he hopes he will have an ear with the BLM.”I don’t know that I’ll have a whole lot of influence,” he said. “Whatever I can do, I will fight for my district.”Clare Bastable of Carbondale, a staff member with the Colorado Mountain Club, said she thinks Salazar’s stance on the plateau “will carry a good deal of weight.””Salazar’s going to be a pretty key player here. He’s new in his position but I think he knows the issue well,” she said.She said the Bush administration has shown at least some interest in what local elected officials have to say. Garfield County first came up with the concept of deferring drilling on the plateau top.Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition said environmentalists will be asking the public to contact elected officials, from town councils to congressmen, to seek support for the plateau’s protection.”Certainly as a campaign we’re looking at all our avenues to deliver what we believe is the popularly supported notion,” he said.Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said his organization always is in contact with politicians, from local governments to those in Congress.”I’m not working to pressure anybody. We’re just working to educate people.”He said COGA probably will talk technology with Salazar, telling how drilling can take place in a way that also protects the environment.”I think our overall goal going forward would be to help Congressman Salazar understand the nature of our business on the Western Slope, with what some of the issues are related to the Roan Plateau,” he said.Bastable said she hopes Salazar will continue to show the kind of interest in the plateau that he displayed during his campaign.”It is a pretty big issue in his district. It’s something I think he will be asked by citizens to respond to,” she said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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