Settlement with conservation groups also will provide more public transparency of permitting activities and environmental data
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Acknowledging a gap in its analysis of Colorado western slope oil and gas drilling activities, the Bureau of Land Management this week agreed to take a much closer look at air pollution resulting from 34 projects covering a total of more than 1,300 proposed wells in the jurisdiction of the agency’s Silt-based Colorado River Valley Field Office.
More than 250 wells have already been drilled, and 54 more have been permitted, but any new permits will require additional analysis.
The settlement came after conservation groups filed a 2011 lawsuit to force the BLM to examine pollution from oil and gas drilling, acknowledged as one of the main sources of regional haze and ozone pollution in the Intermountain West.
But the pollution from oil and gas drilling and related industrial and commercial activities in western Colorado has been hard to quantify because of the BLM’s past failure to adequately analyze the activities it permits.
But for the past year, the BLM has been using a new regional air quality model to analyze impacts of new well-drilling permits, said agency spokesman Dave Boyd. The process takes a bit longer, but the settlement won’t bring oil and gas development to a screaming halt, he said.
Conservation groups, however, said the settlement precludes the BLM from issuing new drilling permits until a new environmental study is done.
The air quality lawsuit grew out of another lawsuit specifically related to oil and gas drilling on the Roan Plateau. In the course of that action, it became clear that the BLM was playing a permitting shell game, trying to use a partial analysis for a very specific area to permit fossil fuel development projects in a broader region.
“The BLM agreed, but said it wasn’t obligated to do more … They were using the Roan Plateau study to approve projects that were miles away from the Roan,” said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman. “When we started examining the records, we saw that more than 1.300 potential wells weren’t covered under any analysis.” said Freeman, who helped negotiate the settlement on behalf of several regional and national conservation groups.
The air over parts of Colorado already violates federal ozone standards, largely because of drilling. Ozone-laden smog is linked to respiratory and heart problems and increased mortality for children and the elderly. Ozone has also been documented to damage plants in Rocky Mountain National Park. The EPA is facing a lawsuit over national park ozone pollution, but the agency has approved A Colorado plan to address regional haze.
Under the agreement, the BLM also agreed to establish and maintain a publicly-accessible internet tracking system for federal drilling permits in its Colorado River Valley Field Office.
Conservation groups said the settlement is an important step to protecting public health in the region.
“We’re pleased that BLM is reconsidering these projects and finally addressing the smog and toxic air pollution they cause,” Freeman said in a prepared statement. “This settlement will allow the agency and the public to better protect the health of Coloradans, and to preserve the remarkable scenic vistas in our state.”
“BLM can’t effectively protect air quality unless it knows how much pollution it is approving,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But the Colorado River Valley Field Office approved more than a thousand wells without any air quality analysis at all. This settlement halts that practice.”
The settlement requires BLM to establish a well permit tracking system on its web site for the Colorado River Valley Field Office. Previously, the Field Office had approved numerous permits without keeping track of the NEPA analyses on which they relied. Under the settlement, BLM will establish a tracking system that discloses the total number of approved drilling permits in the field office and the NEPA document covering each permit.
In addition, the agency has agreed to post pending applications for permits to drill on its Field Office web site for public review. Such on-line notice represents a major improvement over BLM regulations, which only require that such applications be posted on the wall of the field office.
“These steps will open up BLM’s permit approval process to the public,” said Wilderness Workshop interim executive director Will Roush. “Interested citizens can more easily get the information they need to have a say in that process.”
The June 2011 federal lawsuit settled by this agreement was brought by the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club. That case, Wilderness Workshop v. Crockett, challenged BLM’s practice of approving oil and gas projects in the agency’s Colorado River Valley Field Office without first analyzing the air pollution they would cause.