Hick’s Roan Plateau Deal a Stinker for Colorado

As originally published in the Daily Sentinel

Roan settlement casts a cloud over state’s energy economy

By Sen. Ray Scott

The congratulatory back-slapping which followed the Nov. 21 announcement of a “landmark settlement agreement” on Roan Plateau oil and gas leases was an embarrassing example of life imitating art. A month of mourning for Colorado’s energy economy may be more appropriate.

At one level, the political high-fives from Interior Secretary Jewell, Sen. Bennet, Gov. Hickenlooper and environmental activists are understandable. With the cancellation of 17 of the 19 original oil and gas drilling leases representing about 50 percent of the land area encompassed by the leases, the opponents of oil and gas drilling on the Roan Plateau won a major victory. So, they did a little dance in the end zone after the touchdown. And doubtless, it was also a victory for the pragmatists among us who do not like the prospect of continued litigation that might have extended for a decade.

But many Coloradans have not joined the celebration. What about the impact of this settlement on Colorado’s energy economy, now the second-fastest growing energy economy in the nation? Frankly, the settlement is not a good precedent and may well only encourage additional lawsuits to hold up oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The Dec. 9 announcement by the U.S. Forest Service that more than 90 percent of the 2.2 million acres of land in the White River National Forest will be placed off-limits for future oil and gas development is another indication of how much the federal government cares about the future growth of Colorado’s energy economy: not much.

For these and other reasons, the celebration over the Roan Plateau settlement is premature and highly debatable.

In the first place, the “settlement” is not yet final, and we won’t know the full story for another two years when the Bureau of Land Management issues its revised plan. Moreover, some important “conditions” regarding the impact on local government revenue are not a formal part of the settlement and must be acted upon by the Colorado general assembly. While the governor’s December budget proposal accommodates that “hold harmless” agreement, it will require the appropriation of about $23 million out of the General Fund and depends on legislative approval.

Let’s look at the settlement agreement in the larger context of the state’s energy economy. In announcing the settlement, our governor was excited by the prospect of “orderly development” of the Roan Plateau’s mineral resources. But when we stop to ask who will control and define this “orderly development” and who will guarantee that it will be genuinely “balanced” in allowing expanded drilling, the answer is not all that satisfying.

The reality is that the “orderly and balanced development” of our energy resources is in the hands not of elected Colorado lawmakers but our friendly federal overseers at the Department of the Interior and, of course, unelected federal judges. Now, I ask: What could go wrong?

It is true that the state’s oil and gas industry has endorsed the agreement, and open criticism of the plan has been rather muted. But how much of this absence of open criticism is based on real satisfaction with the plan and how much on either pure exhaustion with the expensive process of litigating and “negotiating” with federal agencies and a fear of retaliation from the same forces that brought the Roan Plateau lawsuits?

There are other troubling questions.

Who is speaking up for the thousands of middle-class citizens who will not be offered new jobs in the development of valuable resources on lands now forever removed from natural gas drilling?

What kind of precedent does this settlement provide for future “negotiations” when well-funded environmental interests decide to challenge already existing mineral leases on federal lands?

Can anyone trust federal agencies to keep their word and implement contracts and agreements when a new lawsuit can open up any agreement to new challenges and threaten additional years of expensive litigation?

Many Coloradans will remember when a newly elected governor pledged to make job creation the “top priority” for his policy agenda. What he failed to tell us is that energy jobs were not included on that menu when challenged by environmental radicals at Earthjustice and the Colorado Wildlife Federation. When challenged, our governor chose to collaborate with the opponents of energy development and Obama administration officials instead of standing tall for Colorado’s economic interests.

It is hard to be confident of our state’s long-term oil and gas development when political appointees in federal agencies control so many of those decisions. More than 36 percent of Colorado’s land is owned by federal agencies, which places Colorado eighth among the 50 states in the extent of federal control of lands.  The high-handed Roan Plateau “settlement” is a harsh reminder of that bigger problem.

Contrary to the cheerleaders in the governor’s office, the Roan Plateau settlement is not a “collaborative model” for future development. Quite the opposite is true: It gives added impetus for Colorado joining Utah and other Western states in rolling back that federal ownership of public lands and with it, rolling back federal control of our lives and our economic destiny.

Senator Ray Scott represents Colorado’s 7th District in the State Legislature

Reposted with permission from the author on  1/15/15

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