A gas well in Garfield county, north of the disputed leases in the White River National Forest.

(Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee)

[This story originally aired August 15, 2008]

The Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management held its most expensive, and possibly most controversial, mineral lease auction ever on Thursday. On the block were more than 55,000 acres of the Roan Plateau on the Western Slope. Gas companies hope to strike it big there, but environmental groups haven't give up their fight to keep those lease from ever being fulfilled. ​

[The following is a modified transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

Reporter:  The parcels were going for millions of dollars, but the action in the ballroom of the Denver West Marriott could have come straight from the floor of a livestock auction. As energy company representatives flashed their orange bid cards at the auctioneers,  they brought the total price tag for Roan leases close $114-million dollars, which makes yesterday's auction the priciest B-L-M on-shore lease sale ever in the lower 48-states.  And for BLM spokesman Steven Hall, that made yesterday a very good day.

Hall:  "We had a good turnout, and we're always encouraged to see people take an active interest in their public lands."

Reporter: The most active interest possibly belonged to a relative newcomer to the game.  Two-year-old Vantage Energy spent more than 50-million dollars to buy most of the leases on top of the plateau.  The Englewood-based Vantage was started by two veteran gas executives with nearly a half-a-billion dollars investment.  Mike Holland was doing the bidding for Vantage yesterday... and he was the focus of reporter's attention after the auction.

Annonymous Reporter:  "What is your feeling right now?"

Holland: "Satisfaction, I guess." 

Reporter: And that was about all he'd say. While the leases Vantage snapped up were some of the auction's least expensive properties, they are definitely its most controversial.  The top of the plateau has seen less gas development than other areas and environmental advocates, and Governor Bill Ritter, still hope to keep it that way. They've filed at least 15-thousand protests against the BLM plan for the Roan.  If the BLM decides any of them have merit, it would have to invalidate some or all of the leases sold yesterday.  But to hear Spokesman Steven Hall talk about it, that's a long shot.

Hall: "What we're really looking for is people to bring to us new information that we haven't considered in our planning process.  In the case of the Roan Plateau, that's a pretty narrow window because this is probably one of the most analyzed, and certainly most recently analyzed, areas in terms of federal planning."

Reporter:  Whatever decision the BLM makes on the lease protests, it's going to be controversial. Opponents say the Bureau is rushing the leasing process. Hall says they've spent nearly a decade crafting the plan. He describes it as one of BLM's most environmentally stringent ever. Environmental groups say it will still endanger the nearly pristine area and its wildlife. Many of the environmental groups opposing the sale turned out to watch it. Each parcel auctioned off yesterday was a pain to John Gale, a Colorado representative for the National Wildlife Federation.

Gale:  "Part of its difficult for me to sit there.  I grew up a hunter and angler all my life and I understand the balance needed for energy resources, and making America less dependent on  foreign oil and gas resources, but it's really hard for me as a hunter and angler to see those resources be developed."

 Reporter: Environmentalists like Gale may have a tougher time making their case right now, with national attention focused on high energy prices and the debate over increasing domestic production.  But John Angel of EarthJustice, which is suing the BLM to block the Roan Plan, says the problem is mostly perception.

Angel: "It means we have an educational duty to try to make folks understand that this has nothing to do with prices at the pump.  This isn't going to have any impact whatsoever on longterm natural gas pricing.  It's going to take decades to develop this resource."

Reporter:  How much it will be developed is still a question. Bill Mitchell came to watch the auction for the energy company Bill Barrett Corp. But he didn't buy anything.

Mitchell: "I mean,the bottom line is, can you develop it? And I think there's a serious doubt whether you can, given the restrictions that have been put on it.  I think there's a lot of money spent today, that's stranded capital."

Reporter: Certainly that's true for at least a few years while the BLM addresses the many challenges to it's plan. So, even with yesterday's leases, companies won't be setting up drilling rigs on the Roan Plateau any time soon.