Conservation groups and the Bureau of Land Management have reached a legal settlement preventing drilling on more than 45,000 acres of area oil and gas leases until the agency does additional environmental analysis in local resource management plans.

The action applies to acreage offered in sales of 53 leases in 2016-17 in Mesa and Garfield counties. Some of the acreage underlies Vega Reservoir, lies within a half-mile of the public school in De Beque and sits north of Highline Lake State Park.

The settlement arises from a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Wilderness Workshop, Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club. The suit challenged the BLM’s failure to undertake site-specific environmental review when it approved the leases, and its decision to rely instead on review done in preparing its resource management plans for its Grand Junction and Colorado River Valley field offices.

Conservation groups also have challenged those plans in court. A judge previously ruled that the BLM failed to adequately consider what greenhouse gas impacts would result from burning by consumers of oil and gas produced under the Colorado River Valley Field Office plan, or to consider reasonable alternatives to leasing and development. That led to the BLM agreeing to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to address the judge’s concerns.

Conservation groups similarly are challenging the Grand Junction plan. According to the new settlement agreement, the BLM has proposed to complete supplemental environmental analysis for the Grand Junction plan in that case. Under the new settlement, after doing the additional review on both plans it will determine what if any environmental review is required to address the decisions pertaining to the 53 leases. In the meantime, it has agreed not to approve any drilling permits on the leases.

The agreement stipulates that the BLM denies having violated the law in issuing the leases. Conservation groups have contended the leases pose water-quality, air-pollution and other threats to things such as domestic water supplies, endangered fish in the Colorado River as well as birds and other wildlife, rare wildflowers in the De Beque area, communities such as Mesa and De Beque, and recreationists such as visitors to Vega Reservoir and Highline and mountain bikers north of Fruita.

The 2018 suit challenged what critics contend is a regulatory shortcut in which the BLM refused to do more environmental review before offering the parcels for lease, instead falling back on the analysis done for its resource management plans. The agency says it also does environmental review when companies seek drilling permits on a lease. But Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, previously has told the Daily Sentinel that once a lease has been issued, the BLM has made an irretrievable commitment to leaseholders and has limited opportunity to protect resources.

Hart said in a news release Wednesday, “The Bureau (of Land Management) has long played a shell game to avoid meaningful analysis of the impacts of fossil fuel development on our public lands. This (lease) challenge, together with challenges to recently adopted resource management plans, exposed the practice. And we’re happy today that the Bureau will not approve more development on these leases until the real impacts are considered and disclosed to the public.”

The BLM said in a statement Wednesday, “The BLM’s supplemental analysis will augment prior analyses with updated scientific information. As always, the decision process will consider input from BLM technical experts, cooperating agencies, and the public. The BLM continues to implement its multiple-use mission balancing safe and responsible natural resource development with conservation of important surface resources.”