BATTLEGROUND: Conservationists and the natural gas industry have fought over real estate in western Colorado's Roan Plateau region for years. Energy development has emerged as the biggest issue in the state's ongoing U.S. Senate race. Image: Colorado Environmental Coalition
The Roan Plateau in western Colorado is known for its natural splendor. Deep canyons and mountain streams cut across the aspen-forested landscape. Hunters, hikers and anglers prize the Roan for its large herds of mule deer, rare plants and cutthroat trout.
But there are resources below the Roan that some prize even more: fossil fuel. The plateau boasts the biggest nonleased reserve of federally owned natural gas outside of Alaska, according to David Boyd, a spokesman at the Colorado office of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
With energy becoming more and more expensive, drilling the Roan for natural gas would seem a win–win—at least to some: All that gas is expected to yield about half a billion dollars for the State of Colorado over the next twenty years. But many hunters, hikers and anglers fear that natural gas drilling will despoil the landscape. After all, that's what's happening in neighboring Wyoming.
There, seven years of natural-gas drilling in the Pinedale Anticline region have slashed mule deer populations by a third. Air and residential water quality have dipped as well, with the state issuing five ozone warnings—the first ever—earlier this year. "I don't think there's any doubt that there are lessons to be learned [in Colorado] from what's happening in Wyoming," says Hall Sawyer, a wildlife biologist with the consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology in Laramie, Wyo.
Now a decadelong struggle over the fate of thousands of acres of public land on the Roan has come to a head, and just in time for the hotly contested race for Colorado's open U.S. Senate seat. Republican Bob Schaffer and Democrat Mark Udall are competing to succeed Wayne Allard, the retiring GOP incumbent. Udall has led Schaffer in most polls since the race began last summer and recent results put him ahead by high single digits, though roughly a quarter of Colorado's voters remain undecided.
Both candidates have run mudslinging campaign ads—Udall's are paid for in many cases by the League of Conservation Voters, whereas Schaffer's contributors include ExxonMobil and Halliburton—establishing their disparate positions. Some ads produced by advocacy groups outside the campaigns go beyond the issues into ad hominem attacks, labeling Schaffer as "Big Oil Bob"; a Web site shows a cartoon of him riding an oil well like a cowboy. On the other side, commercials mock Udall as a "Boulder liberal," and a recent ad paints him as a dope-smoking hippie.
A look at the candidates bios strengthens that impression: Schaffer, a former House member, is the former vice president of Aspect Energy, a company that focuses on developing oil fields in places like Iraqi Kurdistan. Udall, a five-term congressman, and son of Arizona representative and 1976 Democratic presidential contender Mo Udall, served as Colorado's executive director of Outward Bound, an outdoors adventure and awareness program, before he entered the political arena in the mid-1990s.
During their shared time as House members, they voted on opposite sides for oil drilling in national monuments, increasing automobile fuel efficiency, and on renewable energy, according to the Rocky Mountain News.