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Drilling Increasingly Encroaches on Rocky Mountains

Drilling already occurs around much of the plateau's base. Conservation groups want to delay drilling on top until technology improves, and companies can drill into the plateau's side to access pockets of gas, instead of putting wells on top.
Drilling already occurs around much of the plateau's base. Conservation groups want to delay drilling on top until technology improves, and companies can drill into the plateau's side to access pockets of gas, instead of putting wells on top.
The cliffs of the Roan Plateau just outside Rifle, Colo., rise about 3,000 feet from the valley floor. On top is a mix of private and public land. At issue is whether to allow drilling on the public land. (Wells already exist on the private land.)
Jeff Brady, NPR /
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The cliffs of the Roan Plateau just outside Rifle, Colo., rise about 3,000 feet from the valley floor. On top is a mix of private and public land. At issue is whether to allow drilling on the public land. (Wells already exist on the private land.)
The land is lusher atop the plateau, where there are about 150 miles of road. Supporters of drilling argue that the road network is an indication that the area isn't pristine -- and doesn't need protection.
Jeff Brady, NPR /
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The land is lusher atop the plateau, where there are about 150 miles of road. Supporters of drilling argue that the road network is an indication that the area isn't pristine -- and doesn't need protection.

High natural gas prices have petroleum companies looking for new places to drill. The Rocky Mountains contain huge reservoirs of gas, but they also have some of the last untouched lands in the country. Environmental and recreation groups warn that unless some places are kept off-limits to drilling rigs, pristine lands will be lost.

The Roan Plateau -- which sits 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, just a few hours west of Denver -- is the subject of one such debate over drilling.

The Bureau of Land Management believes that huge reservoirs of natural gas lie under the plateau. Successful wells operate on private land nearby. Now, the agency appears ready to approve drilling on public land there.

Officials say the bureau has a plan to address both the need for recreation areas and the demand for natural gas. Drilling on top of the plateau will be limited, and it will take place in phases, to lessen effects on plants and wildlife.

Right now, there are seven wells on the plateau. But under the bureau's plan, there could be several hundred -- though they would be consolidated in a relatively small area.

Still, each well means pipes sticking from the ground and new access roads. Last fall, just one drilling rig on private property -- visible to nearby residents -- created an uproar.

The BLM released preliminary plans for the Roan Plateau in 2004. The agency received more than 70,000 comments, most citing objections to drilling on top. The bureau is expected to release its final plan in a few months.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.