DENVER — Most of the wild and gas-rich Roan Plateau in western Colorado will be off-limits to drilling under a compromise announced Friday by conservation groups and an energy company.
Bill Barrett Corp. will give up its right to drill for natural gas on about 56 square miles in 17 parcels it had leased from the federal government atop the plateau. That will protect abundant wildlife, forests and sagebrush country from development.
Two other parcels that Barrett leased, covering seven square miles on the plateau's top, will be freed up from a 6-year-old lawsuit. Drilling could begin in two to four years, after environmental studies and permits are complete, officials said.
Barrett will also be refunded $47.6 million it paid toward the leases it is relinquishing.
The agreement means about 90 percent of the 84 square miles atop the plateau will be off-limits to drilling because of who owns it or what restrictions are on the land, said Mike Freeman, an attorney representing the conservation groups.
More than half the land at the plateau's base will be off-limits, he said.
The agreement settles a lawsuit filed in 2008 by 10 conservation groups after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a 20-year plan for up to for up to 1,570 wells on the plateau's federal land. A federal judge ruled in 2012 the plan was flawed and told the agency to start over.
Friday's agreement gives the agency suggested rules for the new plan that Barrett and the conservation groups agreed on. It also means the plan will cover far less land because of the leases Barrett is relinquishing.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who attended Friday's announcement at the state Capitol in Denver, acknowledged the Bureau of Land Management's plan didn't protect sensitive areas on the plateau's top. "It's important for all of us in the federal government to get oil and gas leases right the first time," she said.
Barrett CEO Scot Woodall said the compromise means the corporation will make less money, but it clears up questions about when it can drill. "We have certainty," he said.
Nada Culver, a senior director of the Wilderness Society, one of the groups that sued the Bureau of Land Management, said the plaintiffs also get certainty about the future of the plateau and a say in how gas development occurs there.
The plateau towers over the Colorado River 35 miles north of Grand Junction. Deer, elk, mountain lions, bears and falcons live among its forests and open terrain.
"When you're up there, you feel like you're the only person for hundreds of miles," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper praised the agreement as a model for balancing energy development and conservation. "In many ways, it's become a symbol of what can be done in similar situations," he said.
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