Judge sends BLM back to drawing board on gas lease plan

Alex Zorn

A drilling rig in western Garfield County.
Post Independent file

A federal judge has ruled that the area Bureau of Land Management’s recently submitted Resource Management Plan failed to adequately weigh environmental impacts, and said the agency will have to go back and discuss the plan with various environment-focused organizations.

The Silt-based Colorado River Valley Field Office administers nearly 3 million acres of public land, and the approval of an RMP is required. The approval of an RMP is considered a major federal action, significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, Judge Lewis T. Babcock said in his ruling.

After the RMP was released, members of several area organizations focused on environmental issues contested that the BLM failed to take a hard look at the direct and cumulative impacts to people and environment, and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives when the RMP was initially released.

“The court’s decision reinforced the federal government’s legal obligation to analyze and disclose to the public the impacts of emissions resulting from the oil and gas made available by its plans,” Alison Kelly, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a press release.

“The American public deserves to know whether federal government decisions regarding the use of our public lands for fossil fuel development are hindering efforts to combat climate change,” Kelly said.

The organizations filed a lawsuit against the RMP and claimed it failed to look at the severity and impacts of greenhouse gas pollution and climate change, methane emissions and oil and gas on human health, among other charges.

They claim the BLM failed to analyze the foreseeable emissions that will result from the processing, transmission, storage and distribution of hydrocarbons.

Judge Babcock agreed with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and he questioned the RMP in several areas.

“BLM acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner. … By not taking a hard look at the indirect effects resulting from the combustion of oil and gas in the planning area under the NEPA,” Babcock wrote. “BLM must quantify and reanalyze the indirect effects that emissions resulting from combustion of oil and gas in the plan area may have on greenhouse gas emissions.”

While Babcock ruled against the BLM, not all of the plaintiffs’ claims were agreed upon.

The environmental groups also argued that the BLM failed to analyze the cumulative climate change impacts in the RMP, which Babcock did not support.

“The BLM took an appropriately hard look at the cumulative climate change impacts,” he wrote.

He also disagreed with the criticisms of the BLM’s methane emission data as well as their assessments concerning risks to health, including air quality, resource management, and chemicals associated with oil and gas production.

“I find that BLM took a sufficiently hard look in the RMP of human health impacts of oil and gas,” he wrote.

“As a long-term Garfield County resident surrounded by oil and gas development on BLM-managed public lands, I am glad to see the BLM being held to a more rigorous level of analysis,” said Bob Arrington, a resident of Battlement Mesa and member of Western Colorado Alliance.

“The Colorado River Valley BLM did not take into full account all the impacts tripling the number of wells on the public lands in our area would have on residents like me,” he said. “The BLM must now consider alternatives that don’t prioritize oil and gas above other uses on our public lands, hopefully reducing well counts and hazardous hydrocarbon emissions. This decision is a step towards ensuring that every BLM field office fully accounts for all the impacts on people living in the area when making these decisions.”

The BLM’s plan projects an additional 6,640 new wells in the next 20 years and would leave more than 600,000 acres open to oil and gas drilling.

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