In the fall of 2008, the outgoing Bush administration gave the oil and gas industry a parting gift that now threatens to destroy the Roan Plateau in Colorado, an area known for its stunning vistas, “beloved by hunters, anglers and hikers for its clear streams, herds of deer and elk, and rugged beauty.”

The Roan, once described by current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as “one of those treasured landscapes of America, a place where we have fish and wildlife resources (and) beautiful streams,” is now the target of major natural gas drilling operations, thanks to George W. Bush’s Bureau of Land Management, which auctioned off oil and gas rights to nearly 55,000 acres of land encompassing the Roan Plateau for $114 million, the BLM’s largest lease sale in the continental U.S.

One of the major benefactors of this fire sale of public resources was Bill Barrett Corp. (NYSE: BBG), which snapped up a large share of the drilling rights to the top of the Roan Plateau when it spent $60 million to purchase a 90 percent interest in 40,300 acres of the oil and gas leases held by Vantage Energy, another unconventional natural gas extraction company co-founded by Barrett Corp’s former Chief Financial Officer. 

Barrett has been chomping at the bit ever since to begin drilling on the Roan, and claimed in a recent conference call with shareholders and media that legal and other challenges that have held up the development so far appeared close to being resolved.  What the company’s executives didn’t talk about on the call was the fact that Barrett Corp. had massively expanded its lobbying budget ever since the sale, retaining two of Washington’s most notorious lobby shops.

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In 2009, Bill Barrett Corp. shelled out $320,000 to NES Inc. and Brownstein Hyatt to handle its D.C. lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  That’s more than five times the amount Barrett spent on lobbying in each of the last five years.

For such a small company, $320,000 in lobbying expenditures is quite a lot of scratch to be throwing at D.C. lobbyists, especially when Barrett Corp. says it has worked closely with the local communities affected by its operations in order to settle disputes and earn local trust.  So what could they possibly need to convince bureaucrats and lawmakers in Washington to help them with after getting such a sweet deal on the Roan leases?

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One reason comes to mind – the massive local opposition in Colorado to the plan to increase drilling on public lands including the Roan plateau.

Before the BLM auction even took place, the Bush administration’s plan to lease the Roan Plateau raised the ire of local communities in Colorado.  It became the target of a major lawsuit by environmental and wilderness groups, the outcome of which is still pending.  Barrett Corp. knew about the legal challenge before it purchased the drilling rights from Vantage Energy, but Barrett announced at the time that it would “vigorously pursue a settlement.”

That hasn’t happened as quickly as Barrett Corp. might have preferred.  Public opposition to the plan to drill the Roan Plateau was overwhelmingly clear from the outset, even before the leases were sold by the Bush administration.  When the BLM sought local input on the plan for more drilling on the Roan, the public comments opposed it by a factor of nearly 10 to 1.

As Men’s Journal reported in its excellent piece ‘The Battle for the Roan Plateau’:

it wasn’t just hemp-and Chaco-sandaled liberals up in Boulder who were crying into their chai lattes. Local communities from Carbondale to Silt, including Rifle, the onetime ranching and mining town at the base of the Roan, passed resolutions opposing the leasing. Joining the usual cast of greenies in opposition were hunters and fishermen like my guides: Neubecker is president of Colorado Trout Unlimited, while Torbit, of National Wildlife, is an avid hunter. “I never thought I’d be sitting down at the table with environmentalists,” says Keith Goddard, a local outfitter and rancher who is a longtime opponent of drilling the Roan. “But all it’s gonna take is one screwup, and that’ll be it,” he says, for the wildlife on the Plateau.

The Bush administration ignored their objections, as well as those of the governor of Colorado, two local congressmen, and U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, all of who opposed the drilling plan.

Note that Ken Salazar was among that list of officials who originally opposed the leasing of the Roan Plateau.  As a Colorado Senator, Salazar praised “the environmental values of the plateau” and many environmental groups expected him to quickly reverse the last-minute Bush giveaway of the Roan Plateau when he became Secretary of the Interior under President Obama.  In fact, Salazar sent an encouraging sign soon after taking office by killing a similarly controversial lease sale in Utah that would have allowed drilling next to Arches National Park. Many expected that Salazar would do the same for the Roan.

But so far, Salazar hasn’t budged.

Could Barrett’s massive lobbying expenditures last year explain – at least in part – the Interior Secretary’s sudden lack of interest in protecting what he had praised as “one of those treasured landscapes of America” before moving to Washington?