DAILY SENTINEL 6-25-18 EcoFlight tours lease areas contested

Jun 25, 2018

EcoFlight tours lease areas contested in lawsuit

Original story: https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/western_colorado/ecoflight-tours-lease-areas-contested-in-lawsuit/article_cdf3f580-78f6-11e8-ad92-10604b9f6eda.html

 

By DENNIS WEBB

Resources as diverse as the western Colorado landscapes that contain them are at stake in a lawsuit challenging 53 oil and gas leases covering some 45,000 acres in Mesa and Garfield counties, conservationists say.

They tried to make their point evident from up above on Monday by providing journalists with a bird's-eye view of the places facing possible drilling thanks to Bureau of Land Management lease sales conducted in December 2016 and December 2017.

The suit alleges the BLM failed to provide proper environmental review before issuing the leases. Instead, conservationists say, the agency fell back on inadequate previous analysis as well as the promise of eventual pre-drilling reviews that conservationists believe will be too little and too late.

"It's a dangerous shell game that the federal government is playing," Diana Dascalu-Joffe, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said before boarding a plane piloted by Bruce Gordon, president of the Aspen-based EcoFlight nonprofit group.

With the navigational help of Peter Hart, staff attorney with the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, Gordon flew a loop taking in many of the lease parcels in question. They include large swaths in piñon-juniper country both north and south of Plateau Creek east of Mesa, isolated parcels near Molina and near and even taking in part of Vega Reservoir in the verdant Plateau Valley, lands surrounding and overlapping De Beque and coming within a half-mile of the public school there, several large swaths lined up in a row in the Roan Creek Valley to the northwest of De Beque, and desert regions west of the town such as colorful South Shale Ridge with its striking "hoodoo" geological formations.

Also at issue in the suit is considerable acreage north of Highline Lake State Park in western Mesa County.

The suit contends the BLM is improperly making use of a regulatory shortcut called a determination of NEPA adequacy, or DNA, to avoid requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. Conservationists say the practice, and resulting drilling and hydraulic fracturing, with their intensive water use and potential water- and air-quality and other impacts, threaten to result in a host of harms, including to:

■ Endangered fish in the Colorado River;

■ Rare wildflowers in the De Beque area;

■ Domestic water supplies;

■ The communities of Mesa, Molina and De Beque;

■ Recreationists in areas such as Vega Reservoir and Highline Lake, and in the mountain biking terrain north of Fruita;

■ Birds and other wildlife in places such as Highline and at De Beque Wildlife Area, an area with a lease overlapping it on the Colorado River.

"Some of the (contested leases) are actually on top of the Colorado River," Dascalu-Joffe said.

The suit challenges the BLM's decision to not do additional environmental review before offering the parcels for lease and instead rely on the work it previously had done when completing resource management plans for its Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley field offices.

"They're telling you they're doing all this analysis at the RMP stage and they're not," Hart said.

He said the BLM also says it will do analysis once companies seek drilling permits on a lease. But he said the problem is that once a lease has been issued, an irretrievable commitment has been made by the BLM.

"They really have a limited opportunity to protect those resources. They've basically already said that you can drill on the lease," he said.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said while he can't comment on the specific lawsuit, generally speaking, the agency has been making use of determinations of NEPA adequacy in the case of field offices that have recent recently completed resource management plans.

Both the Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley plans were completed in 2015.

Completion of such plans involves preparing an environmental impact statement.

"So it's a very detailed, robust analysis that has several opportunities for public involvement," Boyd said.

Resource management plan processes include deciding what lands are available for leasing and under what restrictions. These can include things such as timing limitations to protect wildlife and other surface-use conditions, and in some cases even outright prohibitions on surface use, meaning the underlying oil and gas would have to be tapped using directional or horizontal drilling from other locations.

Boyd said if the BLM finds that an issue wasn't addressed or analyzed at the resource management plan stage, analysis can be done before leasing.

Otherwise, he said, "additional analysis at the leasing stage would be redundant."

If people disagree with the analysis the BLM has conducted, there are steps they can take that include filing a lawsuit, Boyd said.

In addition to the suit specific to the 2016-17 leases, conservationists also have sued the BLM over its resource management plan for the Colorado River Valley Field Office. Hart said the suit highlights a failure to adequately address things like the climate and health impacts of oil and gas development.

"There were a bunch of issues that we highlighted that they hadn't adequately analyzed at the RMP stage," Hart said.

Climate impacts also are an issue the groups raise in the lease lawsuit. They estimate that developing the lease parcels would result in emissions of more than 5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Further development within the two field offices' jurisdictions would result in "many more tens of millions of greenhouse gas emissions," the groups' suit says.

The potential air-quality impacts related to industrial development such as oil and gas drilling were unmistakable from the air Monday looking toward the mountains north of De Beque and northwest of Parachute. There, valleys were choked with clouds of dust apparently resulting from truck traffic on dry roads.

"That's awful," Dascalu-Joffe said as she observed from a seat in the EcoFlight plane.

Both Laramie Energy and Caerus Oil and Gas are currently drilling in that region. Bob Hea, Laramie's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said Monday that Laramie buys water from a local landowner and waters the roads it uses.

"It's definitely dry up there but no one lives where we are operating," he said.

He said Laramie hesitates to use magnesium chloride on the roads to control dust because it's a salt and is bad for the vegetation.

Laramie owns many of the leases that are part of the current legal challenge. The company has had little to say on the lawsuit.

"The BLM awarded the leases so we are moving on," Hea said.

Dascalu-Joffe and Hart are hopeful about their chances for prevailing in the litigation.

"I think that we wouldn't have filed this lawsuit if we didn't think we were right," Hart said.

Just this month, a district court rejected a lease sale covering nearly 20,000 acres on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico due to the BLM's failure to adequately analyze impacts.

"It's very similar facts to this case," Dascalu-Joffe said.

That case also involved the BLM's reliance on the environmental review from a resource management plan. The case differs in one key respect from the western Colorado case, though, in that the New Mexico plan is 15 years old — which conservationists said made it obsolete — rather than three years old in the case of the two local plans.

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