GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Federal land managers have asked a judge to reverse their own approvals for around 400 gas wells in Garfield County, and to send back the drilling plans for further environmental analysis.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday filed a motion in U.S. District Court asking Judge John Kane for a "voluntary remand" of three drilling plans.
The move, if granted, would send the drilling plans back to the drawing board, and require additional analysis of the potential air quality impacts of developing the wells, according to BLM's motion.
The motion covers three separate "master drilling plans" submitted to the BLM by Antero Resources Piceance Corp., WPX (formerly Williams Production RMT) and Laramie Energy II.
Altogether, the three plans called for drilling about 400 gas wells. Antero sought to drill in North Castle Springs, WPX in Spruce Creek, and Laramie in West Mamm.
BLM's motion comes in response to a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Earthjustice, Wilderness Workshop, National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. The suit accused BLM of improperly approving 33 master drilling plans without studying air quality impacts as required by federal law.
Earthjustice attorney Alison Flint said the 33 drilling plans represent roughly 1,400 wells in all, which fall within the regulatory oversight of the BLM's Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt.
In addition to remanding the three plans, the BLM motion asked the judge to dismiss the rest of the lawsuit, allowing approvals for the other 30 master drilling plans and 1,000 wells to stand. The conservation groups, however, continue to press for reversal of the other master drilling plans as well, which are in Garfield County and parts of neighboring counties, according to Flint.
"This really is BLM's acknowledgment that it violated the law," Flint said of the remand request. "We oppose the BLM's request to dismiss the remainder of the lawsuit."
Flint said BLM failed to conduct air quality analyses for the 33 master drilling plans.
Instead, she said, the agency relied on air quality data from a 2006 environmental impact study of drilling proposals for the Roan Plateau northwest of Rifle. But the 2006 study was struck down by another federal judge in June, Flint said, "because it did not consider air pollution from the oil and gas fields surrounding the Roan."
"We're concerned with the larger agency process," she continued, "in which dozens of projects have been approved without looking at air quality impacts."
The three plans affected by the BLM's motion, Flint said, represent "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of potential air quality impacts that are not being properly analyzed.
David Ludlam, executive director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said on Thursday that he could not immediately comment on the BLM motion and its ramifications because he had not had time to study the matter.