Groups: BLM ignores drilling’s effect on climate

7/18/2016
Dennis Webb

Conservation and citizen groups are legally challenging a new local federal land management plan over its potential climate-change and other environmental impacts resulting from oil and gas development.

The complaint filed in federal court Monday challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s new resource management plan issued by its Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt.

Among other things, the plan addresses future oil and gas development where much of the area drilling has occurred to date, in the heart of the Piceance Basin.

In part, the suit contends the BLM ignored the climate-change impacts from the eventual combustion of the gas by consumers. Conservationists have successfully used the same argument in the case of coal mining, both in the case of a challenge of an expansion of the West Elk Mine in the North Fork Valley into a roadless area, and expansions of the Colowyo and Trapper mines near Craig.

In those cases court rulings led to the government having to do new environmental review.

Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said while he’s not aware of the climate-change issue having been brought up the same way in legal challenges in the case of oil and gas development, “the same sort of theory applies.”

He said the BLM typically will attempt to quantify direct emissions, but not downstream emissions, “which assumes that basically there’s no greenhouse gas emissions that will result once (the gas) is taken out of the ground.”

While gas is cleaner burning than coal in terms of its carbon footprint, the suit also says the BLM also does an inadequate job of analyzing the climate-change impacts of methane leakage associated with the potential development. Over the short term, methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Tisdel said the 20-year new BLM plan covers the same time frame when meaningful action is needed to successfully combat climate change.

“They have an obligation to inform the public of impacts of agency decisions and they simply failed to do that in this case,” Tisdel said.

BLM spokesman David Boyd declined to comment on the climate-change issue raised in the suit, citing the agency’s policy of not commenting on active litigation.

But he said it’s important to note that the management plan didn’t authorize any oil and gas development, but rather “made decisions about what lands are open to oil and gas leasing and under what restrictions.”

“It slightly reduced the amount of lands available for oil and gas leasing in Colorado River Valley Field Office, but most of what we are talking about for future development is on leases that were already issued and producing, in some cases for decades,” he said.

The plan’s environmental impact statement analyzed the impacts of the highest estimate for drilling that might occur over the next two decades, but any development would have to be authorized by a site-specific plan, he said.

The planning area covers more than 500,000 acres of BLM land and 700,000 acres of federal minerals in Garfield, Mesa, Eagle, Pitkin and Routt counties. The plan leaves about 603,000 acres open to leasing, closing 2,500 acres in the high-potential area for oil and gas development.

The plan projects that some 6,600 wells could be drilled into federal minerals during the plan’s 20-year life span.

Part of the concern for the groups bringing the lawsuit is the health impacts of drilling on thousands of people living near where drilling already has occurred and is expected to occur in the future.

Tisdel said a lot of future development will be in areas where people already have been forced to endure the legacy of past drilling.

Tisdel’s group brought the suit on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Workshop and the Western Colorado Congress.

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