ASPEN " Pitkin County and a coalition of environmental groups failed to get a temporary injunction to block a natural gas exploration company from constructing a pipeline through roadless areas of western Colorado.
A federal judge on Wednesday denied a motion for the injunction.
"The plaintiffs have not demonstrated a substantial likelihood that they will prevail eventually on the merits of their roadless rule or their National Environmental Protection Act claim," ruled U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn in Denver.
The decision clears the way for work on the pipeline to start this month. Pitkin County officials fear the construction of that pipeline could trigger development of gas wells in western Pitkin County, outside of Carbondale. No new production wells have been drilled in Pitkin County since the gas boom started earlier this decade. However, thousands of acres of public lands have been leased to gas companies.
Wilderness Workshop, the oldest grassroots environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley, is among the plaintiffs teamed with Pitkin County.
"It's disappointing, of course," Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said of the ruling. "We're considering what our options are."
The environmental coalition and Pitkin County filed a lawsuit in March against the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management over their approval of the Bull Mountain Pipeline in Garfield County. The plaintiffs claimed the agencies violated federal law by approving a pipeline, which will require roads for construction, in a roadless area. A Texas firm called SGI Interests wants to build the pipeline through three roadless areas of national forest.
The federal agencies claimed that the pipeline would require temporary construction areas rather than roads, so there was no violation of the roadless rule. Blackburn ruled in their favor on that point.
The environmental groups and Pitkin County also argued that the pipeline would clear the way for more gas wells to be developed on public lands. They claimed the agencies didn't do any analysis of the environmental consequences of those new wells.
But Blackburn ruled that the pipeline was viable to serve existing wells. It will not automatically trigger drilling of new wells, he determined.
Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Chris Seldin said county officials feel it is much more likely gas wells will be developed if the pipeline is built. SGI holds 13 gas leases on 17,170 acres in Pitkin County, Shoemaker said. All those leases are within the White River National Forest.
The pipeline itself doesn't enter Pitkin County, but it would connect to existing pipelines. The Bull Mountain Pipeline would be 25.5 miles long and connect to a larger pipeline running near Interstate 70.
The judge concluded in his ruling that the plaintiffs "will suffer some irreparable injury" from construction of the 8 miles of the pipeline through roadless areas. "The 100-foot wide right-of-way will be stripped of trees and other vegetation and graded to accommodate construction vehicles," his ruling said. "Nine acres of spruce/fir old growth and 29 acres of aspen old growth will be removed, and generally trees will not be permitted to grow in the pipeline right-of-way."
That work could result in greater risk of erosion and turn land that is suitable as lynx habitat into unsuitable, the judge acknowledged. However, he said there was also a public interest in the construction of the pipeline and that SGI's economic interests would be harmed if the work didn't progress.
"I conclude that the balance of harms in this case is roughly a wash," the judge wrote.
His denial of the temporary injunction doesn't eliminate the lawsuit. However, the pipeline could be finished by the time the litigation is resolved. Seldin said the attorneys for the plaintiffs hadn't decided as of Thursday morning if they will appeal the decision.