(CN) – Oil and gas companies that want to drill in sensitive areas must consider not just the environmental and archaeological impact of each well, but also the cumulative impact of wells in the area, a 10th Circuit panel ruled Tuesday – finding that for hundreds of wells drilled in the past 15 years, that didn’t happen.
“The implications of this case are broad, and I think it represents more than a bump in the road,” said Kyle Tisdel, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney who represented four nonprofits in their 2015 challenge of the permitting process for more than 350 wells in the San Juan Basin near the spot where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet.
To issue a permit for a well, the government must conduct an environmental assessment to determine if the well would have significant impact, no significant impact, or should be abandoned. They must consider individual wells’ impact and the cumulative effect of all the wells on the environment and archaeological sites.
“They failed to do that,” Tisdel said.
The nonprofits – Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and Natural Resources Defense Council – sued the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Interior and their chiefs in federal court seeking to block hundreds of wells. The oil companies that hold drilling leases intervened in the case.
The BLM oversees much of the public land in the San Juan Basin, where private oil and gas companies have been drilling for more than 60 years. The advent of fracking – injecting water into the ground under high pressure to fracture rock, allowing gas or oil to escape more easily – has increased that drilling, leading the BLM in 2003 to envision almost 10,000 new wells in the area through the mid-2020s.
The nonprofits argued the oil companies got Bureau of Land Management drilling permits in violation the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, which governs preservation of archeological sites. But a federal judge denied their 2015 bid to block the wells, finding the BLM had complied with both environmental and archaeological impact assessments.
On appeal, the 10th circuit panel found the BLM has shirked its duty to conduct environmental assessments for nearly 4,000 wells.
“(The BLM) analysis of the cumulative impacts on water resources does not address the water consumption associated with the 3,960 reasonably foreseeable Mancos Shale wells,” U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the panel.
“As to these five environmental assessments, the BLM was required to, but did not, consider the cumulative impacts on water resources associated with drilling the 3,960 reasonably foreseeable horizontal Mancos Shale wells.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Jerome A. Holmes, a George W. Bush appointee, and Monroe G. McKay, a Jimmy Carter appointee, joined the opinion. The BLM must now a conduct proper analysis of the five environmental assessments.
Tisdel, the nonprofits’ attorney, said more legal action may be necessary since work has continued in the area while litigation was pending.
“There have been hundreds of permits issued in the area that are subject to the same requirements as these wells,” he said.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, which represented the U.S. government in the case, did not return messages seeking comment.