From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and both of Colorado’s U.S. senators on Wednesday [October 22] called in a joint letter for federal approval of a proposed settlement to the Roan Plateau drilling dispute, in the latest indication of coalescing support for the deal.
The agreement offers “a unique opportunity” for resolving the controversy, Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet joined Hickenlooper and Tipton in stating in the letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, as they asked her to take prompt action to finalize the deal.
“This proposed settlement would resolve the ongoing lawsuit and end the uncertainty that has plagued the local communities and industry,” they wrote. “This agreement represents the collaboration of the oil and gas industry, environmental organizations, many local governments, the state of Colorado and our respective offices.”
The deal would settle a lawsuit stemming from a Bureau of Land Management decision to lease some 55,000 acres on the plateau outside Rifle in 2008. The status of the leases remains up in the air following a 2012 federal judge’s ruling that found fault with the BLM management plan leading to the lease sale.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by conservation groups, and was appealed by Bill Barrett Corp., which owns the leases on the plateau top. The ruling prompted the BLM to launch a supplemental environmental review.
Talks between the Interior Department, Bill Barrett Corp. and conservation groups reportedly would result in the company giving up certain leases on the plateau in return for compensation, while keeping some leases, and would let companies with leases along the base of the plateau proceed with developing them.
Tipton previously had voiced support for the deal as long as no costs associated with it would be borne by local governments that shared some of the proceeds of the Roan Plateau lease sale through federal mineral lease distributions. Hickenlooper’s office subsequently agreed to support holding local governments harmless through state budgetary action by the legislature.
The state received about half of the nearly $114 million from the Roan lease sale. It would likely repay any lease payments related to a settlement through a reduction in future federal mineral lease distributions. The state shares its portion of such distributions with local governments.
The deal anticipates that royalty, severance and other revenue to the federal and state government from drilling on the base of the plateau would more than offset the cost of reimbursement of leases on the top.
“While the settlement requires a temporary drawback of state and federal funds, collaborators and the state of Colorado have committed to ensuring that local governments will not ultimately lose any resources they realized through the initial lease sale that prompted the litigation. With this last important condition, the local governments in question support the proposed agreement,” Wednesday’s letter to Jewell says.
Both Garfield and Mesa counties have voiced support for the deal, as have Ursa Resources and WPX Energy, which own some of the plateau base leases tied up in the litigation.
Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said Wednesday said the county is behind the deal “100 percent.”
The letter from the Republican Tipton and Hickenlooper, Udall and Bennet, all Democrats, says the land beneath the plateau contains natural gas resources, while the plateau “also contains important habitat for elk, mule deer, and native Colorado cutthroat trout.”
The proposed settlement would “protect the most ecologically sensitive parts of the Roan, while providing for the orderly development of the area’s natural gas resources,” the letter says.
Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said Udall thinks the settlement is a good way to end the long-running controversy. Wednesday’s letter “is just building on some of the recent support for this,” he said.
But he believes it’s significant in that it comes jointly from the governor and from the two U.S. senators and the congressman who all represent the area that includes the Roan Plateau.
Said Duane Zavadil, a senior vice president of Bill Barrett Corp., “We’re gratified to see an expression by the U.S. delegation, by our local governments, by folks in state government, a bipartisan sort of recognition of what’s good for Colorado. It’s gratifying and encouraging to see folks kind of put those politics aside — one of those moments even during election season when people are willing to do the right thing for the state of Colorado and implore the Department of Interior to try to make this thing work.”
He said it’s important to note the deal isn’t complete, but he has “real hope” of it getting accomplished, and the letter’s reason was to “help compel parties to see the benefit in getting this done.”
The BLM hasn’t been commenting on the settlement talks while they continue. The Interior Department couldn’t be reached for comment after the letter’s announcement late Wednesday afternoon. Zavadil said the deal conceivably could be completed “in a matter of weeks.”
Mike Freeman, an attorney with the group Earthjustice who represents conservation organizations in the Roan litigation, said he continues to be unable to discuss negotiations while they’re still ongoing. But he said the conservation groups “really appreciate the support” that’s being expressed for the proposed settlement.
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