Conservation groups say BLM botched environmental analysis
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A long-running battle over the fate of northwestern Colorado’s Roan Plateau was back in U.S. District Court Tuesday for oral arguments before Federal Magistrate Kristen Mix.
Conservation groups who challenged a Bush-era drilling plan for the plateau say the Bureau of Land Management violated federal environmental laws in its analysis by ignoring key issues like air quality.
Federal attorneys countered that the administrative record shows that the agency followed all the required steps under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The case dates back to 2008 when the BLM sold leases on the plateau worth $114 million, said to be the highest-yielding lease sales in the U.S. up to that date, but planning for the plateau goes back to 2002. Read some of the background here.
A coalition of 10 conservation groups sued the agency immediately protect the Roan, considered to be one of the most biologically diverse areas in Colorado.
“We’re basically talking about national park-quality lands,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman, who argued the case on behalf of the environmental groups.
Preceding today’s oral arguments, leaseholder Bill Barrett Corp and the environmental groups tried to reach a compromise in year-long series of court-ordered negotiations.
The case will be decided on the administrative record, and Freeman said the judge wanted to hear about four specific claims made by conservation groups, Freeman said.
“Our argument is that they didn’t consider more protective alternatives for the Roan, as required by NEPA and that the BLM’s analysis only covered about 15 percent of the wells that will likely be drilled on top of the Roan … their own documents show that they expected many more wells … They have an obligation to analyze those,” Freeman said.
The conservation groups also argued that the BLM’s analysis fell far short in evaluating potential air quality impacts by skipping a required cumulative effects analysis that would show air quality impacts in the context of all other drilling under way or proposed for the region.
“What they did was assume that no drilling would happen anywhere else in Colorado, which is just nonsense,” Freeman said, adding that the agency’s evaluation of ozone impacts was also lacking.
Freeman said the conservation groups don’t think this is an all-or-nothing situation and are hoping for a plan that protects the natural resources of the area.
There’s no set schedule for a ruling in the case, but Freeman said he expects the judge to rule on the legal claims. If the court upholds some of the challenges, there would likely be a separate remedy phase, when the judge could order the BLM to red0 all or parts of the environmental analysis.