Ruling should help protect Western lands, groups say

Environmental groups say a federal appeals court decision in a New Mexico case this week should aid in efforts to protect other Western public lands from energy development, including the Roan Plateau in Colorado.

“We think in particular it will have important implications for the Roan Plateau case,” said Michael Freeman, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Freeman is helping represent environmental groups in a lawsuit challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing of the Roan Plateau, northwest of Rifle, last year for oil and gas development.

On Tuesday, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s decisions on issues surrounding the appropriateness of oil and gas development on Otero Mesa in New Mexico. It said the BLM had to consider leaving Otero Mesa undeveloped under the agency’s multiple-use mandate.

Environmental groups including the Wilderness Society had sued over the BLM’s Otero Mesa management plan, as had the state of New Mexico.

Said Freeman, “We don’t see how the Roan Plateau case should come out any different from Otero Mesa’s in light of the 10th Circuit’s direction here.”

The Obama administration has begun settlement talks over the Roan lawsuit, which challenges decisions made under the Bush administration. Environmental groups contend the government failed to consider proposals to protect the top of the Roan Plateau from oil and gas development. The government disagrees with that contention.

Freeman said the Otero Mesa decision also made clear that before leasing occurs, the BLM needs to take a hard look at the reasonably foreseeable impacts of such a decision.

“That’s exactly what BLM didn’t do on the Roan Plateau,” he said.

Environmental groups say that by evaluating only 20 years of development, the BLM considered the impacts of only 210 wells on top of the Roan, when the agency’s own analysis suggest as many as 2,000 wells eventually could be drilled there. The agency says looking beyond 20 years would have reduced it to speculating about possible impacts.

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said the Otero Mesa decision focuses largely on procedural matters.

“It just requires BLM to do more analysis and consider more options,” she said.

It doesn’t require the agency to pick a particular land use option, she said.

Hans Stuart, a BLM spokesman in New Mexico, said the Otero Mesa plan was the result of a “long and rigorous process” that began in 1998, and the agency is considering whether to appeal.

It’s too early to speak to what impacts the court decision might have on other BLM land use planning, Stuart said.


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