DENVER (CN) – The government improperly authorized a plan that would let oil and gas companies lease largely unspoiled, energy-rich land in Colorado, a federal judge ruled.
The Colorado Environmental Coalition and several other environmental advocates filed suit over the Bureau of Land Management’s handling of a 120,000-acre tract of land known as the Roan Plateau Planning Area.
Located mostly in Garfield County of northwest Colorado, the Roan Plateau is a scenic blend of deep canyons, natural basins and steep cliffs bounded by a combination of desert and subalpine habitat. A year-round home to mountain lions and bears, the plateau also draws visits from hikers and nature enthusiasts.
But beneath the serene surface, the plateau also boasts valuable oil and gas reserves. Several wells around its edges are already producing natural gas.
After deciding to increase natural gas production in 2000, the Bureau of Land Management released an environmental impact statement and proposed six alternative plans.
It ultimately settled on Alternative Plan C, which opened up all of the planning area to leasing, but specified that the areas on top of the plateau would not be drilled until production began on most of the wells that could be drilled on the lower elevations.
The final plan allowed drilling on the upper plateau in six ‘”phased areas,”‘ but allowed drilling in only one zone at a time. The bureau claimed that this horizontal phasing would “reduce impacts to wildlife by leaving large portions of the plateau relatively unaffected until reclamation had been completed in previously drilled areas.”
Though the bureau looked at how drilling would affect air quality in the planning area, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger found that the agency had not given enough consideration to the impact on nearby private land.
Krieger set the bureau’s plan aside on June 22 and remanded for further action.
“The court finds that the BLM failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the air quality effects from its decision, when accumulated with air quality effects from anticipated oil and gas development outside the planning area, which renders its decision arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the” Administrative Procedures Act, Krieger wrote.
She also criticized the bureau for failing to analyze effects on ozone.
The bureau had said it did not need to analyze ozone because past data and other agencies indicated that “formal ozone monitoring was unnecessary.”
But Krieger called this argument “unpersuasive.”
“The mere fact that the area has not exceeded ozone limits in the past is of no significance when the purpose of the EIS is to attempt to predict what environmental effects are likely to occur in the future,” when the drilling will actually occur, she wrote, abbreviating environmental impact statement.
Noting that the BLM supported its plan with statements made after it had rendered its decision, Krieger said there was a lack of factual evidence for her to consider.
Though the agency must further develop the record on cumulative air quality and ozone, it does not have to cancel any drilling leases that are already in place, according to the court.
It is still possible that the bureau can support its plan with more extensive analyses and factual evidence, the decision states.