Proposed BLM plan would protect Vermillion Basin |

Proposed BLM plan would protect Vermillion Basin

CRAIG, Colo. (AP) – A federal proposal for managing land that oil and gas companies have eyed in northwest Colorado would keep energy development off the remote Vermillion Basin.

The Wilderness Society commended the announcement by the Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday, and Gov. Bill Ritter said the decision upholds the spirit of energy development in a way that doesn’t irreparably harm natural resources or communities.

But a Moffat County commissioner said it could cost the state jobs and revenues, and The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association expressed disappointment in the decision.

The BLM in 2007 released a draft plan for about 1.9 million acres of federal minerals managed by the Little Snake Field Office in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties. That draft suggested opening 77,000 acres of the Vermillion Basin to energy leases, with some restrictions on development.

After receiving public comments, the BLM on Tuesday announced a proposed management plan to protect the basin, prized by conservation groups for its wildlife habitat, sandstone cliffs and petroglyphs. A total of 242,000 acres, including the basin, would be closed to oil and gas leasing under the proposal.

Energy development would still be allowed on most of the other land, but the BLM proposes adding terms to protect sagebrush habitat and other sensitive resources.

The agency plans to release the proposed management plan and open a 30-day protest period on it in late July.

“This decision by the BLM is commendable, but it’s just one aspect of a much larger management plan expected later in July. We’re hopeful the comprehensive final plan will restore some balance to an area targeted by oil and gas industry for years now,” said Soren Jespersen, northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator at The Wilderness Society.

More than 1 million acres in the mineral-rich area are leased for oil and gas in the Little Snake area, but less than 15 percent of the leases have been developed for oil and gas, the BLM said.

Moffat County Commissioner Tom Mathers said he prefers opening Vermillion Basin to development. He and others are still upset over Ritter’s declaration in 2007, after taking a helicopter tour of the area, that Vermillion Basin shouldn’t be drilled.

That was in opposition to the BLM’s proposal at the time to allow drilling but limit it to just 1 percent of the land at any on time.

Mathers said the energy industry viewed it as restrictive but “reasonable.”

Moffat County Commissioner Audrey Danner said she was surprised that proposal was turned aside.

“There was an extensive amount of public process that went into that decision making, and that was an opportunity to have use of the Vermillion Basin for energy extraction in a very controlled way, and to have the opportunity to protect that basin as a very beautiful natural amenity,” Danner said.

“Stakeholders spent over half a decade using on-the-ground conditions and science to agree on a restrictive, responsible development plan for the Vermillion Basin. This remarkable Washington re-trade must certainly dishearten those who compromised and worked in good faith for balanced energy policy in Northwest Colorado,” said David Ludlam, executive director of The West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Mathers said allowing drilling on the basin would bring jobs and tax revenue to the state and county. “It’s a lot of dollar signs,” he said.

“There’s only one thing that makes the basin spectacular: It’s never had any drilling leases done on it,” he said. “You can go over the next hill and the next hill and the next hill and it all looks the same.”

In a written statement, BLM Colorado Director Helen Hankins said the proposal presents a balanced approach to oil and gas leasing and development.

The Wilderness Society contends the Vermillion Basin contains less than 5 percent of technically recoverable natural gas in the Little Snake resource area and about 1 percent of the oil.

The BLM has estimated its management plan addresses 9.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“The Vermillion Basin is a stark, untrammeled landscape of fragile beauty. It contains just 2 percent of the high oil and gas potential in the Little Snake management area. But because of the arid conditions that make this basin so spectacular, the impacts of gas development would literally last forever,” Ritter said in a written statement.

“My administration supports the natural gas industry as a mission-critical driver of our New Energy Economy. But energy development must occur in a way that does not cause irreparable harm to our environment, other natural resources, wildlife or to our citizens and communities,” he said.

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