Vast swath of Colorado public lands could be off limits oil and gas leasing

Federal land managers have proposed blocking future oil and gas development on more than a million acres of Colorado’s Western Slope as they reshape how they handle energy development in the face of a drying and warming West.

The Bureau of Land Management’s draft management plan for a swath of land between the Utah border and Eagle would close 1.6 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing. If approved, the plan would forestall the drilling of hundreds of future wells.

“What we’re seeing here is a draft management plan that is really reflecting the changing economy of the region, which is becoming less dependent on oil and gas extraction,” said Erin Riccio, advocacy director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

The federal agency categorizes land into four categories based on the prospects for oil and gas development, rating them as having high, medium, low or no known potential. The BLM’s plan would block development in all but the approximately 382,000 acres labeled high potential.

The management plan would drastically reduce the percentage of land available for leasing — from 85% of the area to 20%. It would block roughly 599 new oil and gas wells over the next 20 years, according to the BLM.

Currently, 125,400 acres in the area already are closed to oil and gas leasing. If the BLM enacts its proposed plan — called “Alternative E” based on its review of multiple possibilities — an additional 1.4 million acres would be closed.

Neither the Colorado Oil and Gas Association nor the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association responded to multiple requests for an interview about the proposed rule change and management plan.

Environmental groups and some local leaders have praised the proposal.

“I’m very pleased that we’re at a point where we’re paying attention to conservation,” said Caitlin Carey, a New Castle town council member and a candidate for the Garfield County Board of Commissioners. “The BLM is the Bureau of Land Management — and part of that is preserving land for the future.”

Garfield County — also home to Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Parachute — takes in about 30% of its revenue from the oil and gas industries, Carey said. She suggested it would be silly to say that closing some lands to leasing wouldn’t have an economic impact. Money from the industries built New Castle’s schools, library and town hall.

But the county can’t rely on a finite resource and needs to diversify its economic portfolio, she said.

“The truth of the matter is we shouldn’t close it all down,” Carey said of allowing energy development. “And the truth of the matter is we shouldn’t leave it all open.”

There was another option considered by the BLM, labeled Alternative F, that would close even more land to oil and gas leasing. That plan would block about 95% of the Western Slope area at issue to leasing, leaving only 104,100 acres open to development.

Alternative F would add protections for habitats of endangered species such as the humpback chub, a river fish, as well as for recreation areas, the Dolores River corridor, watersheds for municipal water supplies and habitats for trout, birds and bighorns. The plan would block the creation of about 779 wells, the BLM estimated.

Decision-making over the future of oil and gas leasing on the Western Slope comes as the BLM for the first time in decades reconsiders how it balances the use of the 245 million acres it manages across the United States — about 40% of all public lands in the country, the largest holding by any government agency.

A rule change proposed by the agency would make several major reforms to oil and gas leasing, including prioritizing leasing on its lands with high energy potential over those with less potential. BLM officials also would have to consider the value of protecting wildlife habitat, recreation areas and cultural sites when deciding whether to lease land.

The proposed change has garnered praise from a slew of environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society, and several of Colorado’s representatives in Congress.

But at least one group on the Western Slope is concerned the rule wouldn’t adequately protect areas that are both have high energy development potential and are critical for conservation, water or recreation purposes.

“The issue is there is no way to reconcile those preferences,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community. “They’re not in any order — if you have an area that is high development potential and high conservation value, what happens?”

Important watersheds in Colorado’s North Fork Valley and the Grand Mesa are labeled as having high development potential, she said.

“It’s great that they’re conserving all of these lands,” Léger added, “but they shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of creating high-density areas” — which could occur if energy development is channeled onto the smaller swaths of land that remain open.

Public comment on the BLM’s proposed rule change was set to close on Friday., while comments on the management plan for BLM’s land on Colorado’s Western Slope will be accepted until Nov. 1.

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