1,300 wells under review for air quality

The Bureau of Land Management has agreed in a lawsuit settlement to take another look at the potential air pollution associated with 34 projects involving 1,300 oil and gas wells in Garfield County and the surrounding area.

Conservation groups said Monday the deal means that no new drilling permits for the projects involved will be approved until the re-examination is done. However, the agency says it already has been doing exactly that.

The conservation groups said in a news release that the agency also will establish a publicly accessible Internet tracking system for federal drilling permits in its Colorado River Valley Field Office based in Silt.

“We’re pleased that BLM is reconsidering these projects and finally addressing the smog and toxic air pollution they cause,” Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said in the release. “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.”

Earthjustice brought the suit in 2011 on behalf of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.

It said the BLM improperly relied on a 2006 environmental impact statement for proposed oil and gas development on the Roan Plateau to grant approval for other drilling projects in Garfield County.

“Unfortunately, that … document did not actually address the impacts of the projects being approved. As a result, BLM never considered the air pollution that could be caused by the more than 1,300 wells in those projects,” the news release said.

Last year, a federal judge set aside the decision that led to the leasing of some 55,000 acres for oil and gas development on the Roan Plateau west of Rifle. The judge ordered the matter remanded back to the BLM for further action, partly because of what she found to be deficiencies in the air quality analysis in support of its action.

According to the new settlement, the Roan ruling led to the federal government asking the court to agree to a “voluntary remand” of the two project approvals originally challenged in the 2011 litigation.

However, last September the conservation groups amended their lawsuit to challenge more than 30 additional projects that also relied on the air quality analysis on the Roan Plateau.

Under the settlement, the government agreed to pay the groups $98,000 for attorneys’ fees and costs.

Two energy companies, WPX Energy and Ursa Piceance, had intervened in the lawsuit as defendants. A number of other companies’ projects also were at issue in the suit.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said Monday that the agency has “already been doing the new analyses agreed to in the settlement for some time — this settlement reflects and memorializes what we are already doing.”

He said the agency continues to disagree with the main argument of the 2011 lawsuit, which was that it shouldn’t have used the Roan Plateau air modeling for wells outside the Roan planning area.

“We did that because that model looked at the full airshed, so we felt that was valid,” he said.

However, when the judge in the Roan Plateau case took issue with the modeling itself, the agency decided it made sense to settle, he said.

Boyd said some of the 1,300 wells already have been drilled, although he doesn’t know how many, and those aren’t affected by the settlement. He said 116 wells have been approved using new air modeling.

Said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “No one has done more to address air quality concerns in western Colorado than members of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“In addition to helping pioneer a groundbreaking air study with Colorado State University, our member companies continually apply new advanced pollution control technologies while working to convert areas of operations to run on cleaner-burning natural gas.

“Continuously reducing impacts to air quality is a responsibility our companies take seriously no matter what frivolous legal endeavors others might entertain along the way.”


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