Doing the math on the Roan Plateau

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The Roan wasn't built in a day.

The long-awaited, much-contested auction of natural gas leases on the Roan Plateau gets underway August 14, with environmentalists gathering outside the Denver West Marriott to protest while energy companies inside slice up 55,186 acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

A lawsuit by major enviros challenging the BLM lease plan, which was also opposed by Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Senator Ken Salazar and other local Dems, is still pending. But handing out the leases is a major step toward the extensive drilling of the plateau that will bring more than 100 miles of new roads and inevitable degradation to one of the most biologically diverse areas of the state. To learn more about what's at stake, see the 2004 feature "Raiding the Roan."

The maneuvers of the opposition have delayed action on the Roan for years, even while the terms of the debate have grown increasingly strident. To hear some of the pro-drill crowd today, including oil and gas lobbyists and state senator Josh Penry, you'd think it was our patriotic duty to suck everything we can out of the Western Slope, for the sake of "energy independence," jobs, and the expected billions in royalties and other revenues the state will realize from the move. But there's reason to believe that the windfall to be realized from the readily accessible reserves of the plateau have been greatly exaggerated; that it will have zero effect on gas prices (and little effect on natural gas markets some years down the line); and that the true long-term costs of stepped-up drilling, to tourism and wildlife and the environment, have never been accurately calculated.

Proponents of drilling say the BLM's restrictions on access to the Roan, combined with the roadblocks thrown by the plateau's defenders, will depress prices at the auction. It will be interesting to see if they're right, or if the industry is still bullish on Colorado as a state that rolls over and says, Drill me, please. -- Alan Prendergast

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