BLM prepares to sell oil and gas leases in Colorado

Nov 10, 2004 01:00 AM

Environmentalists said the auction of oil and gas leases on about 48,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado further endangers the state's pristine areas.
About 15,000 acres offered during the auction have been proposed as federal wilderness by Colorado residents and US Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. In the last 18 months, the Bureau of Land Management has offered oil and gas leases on a total of 43,600 acres seen as potential wilderness.

Many of the parcels offered in the latest auction form the heart of the Colorado Plateau, said Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
"Some of them are the most impressive red-rock country we have in Colorado," Kolbenschlag said. None of the 61 parcels put up for lease by the BLM was in federal wilderness or areas under study for wilderness designation, agency spokeswoman Hillerie Patton said.

The auction generated $ 3.6 mm, according to preliminary estimates. Energy companies paid $ 6.6 mm in May to lease 72,000 acres of federal land in western Colorado. The BLM withdrew 16 parcels before the auction. They included land along the Dolores River in Mesa County that is part of wilderness proposals by DeGette and advocates.
Patton said more environmental review was needed of the parcels.
Steve Smith, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, said he was glad the BLM was taking more time on some of the leases but was concerned about others that were approved.

The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups protested leasing 20 of the parcels. The BLM can't issue a lease until it considers the protest. The BLM's decision can be appealed to the Interior Board of Lands Appeal in Washington, DC.
The agency's recent auction of leases oil and gas drilling in western Colorado has spurred a flurry of protests, most of which have been rejected. Conservationists say the areas should be protected because of their recreational and scenic values and importance to wildlife and other species.

BLM officials counter that only Congress can designate wilderness, which is off-limits to development. They say other federal land is to be used for multiple purposes. Sites being leased by the BLM in Colorado and Utah contain some of the largest natural gas deposits in the Rockies.
Last year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton threw out a Clinton-era rule that protected public lands seen as potential wilderness. That lifted protections on 600,000 acres of proposed wilderness in Colorado and millions of acres across the West to settle a lawsuit by the state of Utah.

Patton said leases are proposed by companies and meet the criteria for oil and gas development. Many of the sites include conditions to protect wildlife and the environment, she said.
Legislation pending in Congress to designate the areas as wilderness likely won't pass because the Republicans' majority will grow to 55-44-1 in the next session, said Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group.
"These groups don't like the answer they've been given," Schnacke said of the protests.

Environmentalists contend there shouldn't be a rush to lease more land because BLM statistics show that 70 % of the oil and gas leases on federal land in Colorado aren't producing anything.
Schnacke, though, said that argument doesn't recognize how business works.
"Leasing simply gives you the right to determine whether there's any gas under that land. Companies need an inventory of land to determine whether projects are possible," he said.

DeGette's spokesman, Josh Freed, said the congresswoman will decide whether to propose her wilderness bill in the next session. He said he believes Coloradans support protecting the state's special places, and their election of Democrats Ken Salazar and John Salazar to the US Senate and House, respectively, show that.
"Coloradans voted for a more moderate, common sense approach to governance, and this includes protecting the last pieces of wild lands in our state,"Freed said.

Source: Casper Star-Tribune
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