Barrett: Judge got facts wrong in Roan development ruling

Bill Barrett Corp. says a federal judge got facts wrong and improperly second-guessed Bureau of Land Management decisions last June in setting aside the agency’s management plan leading to the 2008 leasing of the Roan Plateau for oil and gas development.

The energy company makes the argument in a 77-page brief in an appeal of the decision of U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Barrett owns a 90 percent interest in some 40,000 acres of leases issued in 2008, including all acreage leased then on top of the plateau.

In total, the BLM leased about 55,000 acres on and surrounding the plateau to four companies for some $114 million. A lawsuit by conservation groups led to last year’s ruling by Krieger. She sent the Roan plan back to the BLM for further action partly because she ruled it failed to adequately explain why it didn’t consider a so-called “community alternative” that would have entailed protecting the plateau top through directional drilling.

But Barrett contends Krieger incorrectly interpreted that alternative — proposed by the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which is now part of Conservation Colorado — to include requiring directional drilling from the base.

Rather, Barrett said, the proposal focused on deferring leasing on top for the life of the management plan.

Responding to a separate request for analysis by the group Rock the Earth, however, the BLM found that tapping gas beneath the top from the base wasn’t technically feasible, Barrett said. That was based on input from the BLM’s own experts, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and WPX Energy (known at the time as Williams), which was already drilling nearby.

In its brief, Barrett also took issue with Krieger’s findings that the BLM failed to sufficiently consider air quality, specifically ozone impacts. The company said the BLM considered the low level of ozone precursors in the area as well as levels that would result from leasing.

Federal agency decisions are to be accorded a high level of deference by judges, particularly involving their areas of technical expertise, but instead “the district court substituted its judgment for that of the agency,” Barrett said.   

Mike Freeman, an attorney representing conservation groups, said they’re working on a response to Barrett’s arguments, but he considers them meritless.

Regarding the company’s characterization of the community alternative, “that’s just flat wrong,” he said.

The BLM has begun a process to revise its Roan plan based on Krieger’s ruling. BLM spokesman David Boyd said if that ruling were completely overturned, the agency would have to consider the implications for its plan revision. If only aspects of the ruling were changed, that should be able to be incorporated into the revised plan, he said.

The agency is initially considering alternatives including canceling all the leases, which would require reimbursing the companies.

One of them, WPX, has had to postpone plans to drill acreage it leased in the 2008 sale because the leases are suspended.

WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said that wouldn’t change its local plans, however, because it has back-up plans involving drilling elsewhere in the area.


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