Court rejects challenge on HD Mountains drilling
July 22, 2011
DENVER – Federal appeals judges have rejected environmentalists’ challenge of a plan that could allow dozens of natural gas wells in the San Juan National Forest in Colorado – for now.
Five environmental groups had filed a lawsuit that argued the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management fell short on their environmental review of a 125,000-acre coalbed methane project that covers an area including the HD Mountains, which includes roadless areas. The groups also argued the agencies violated forest management plan standards for protecting old-growth forests, wildlife habitat and water.
A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday backed part of a ruling by a federal judge who found the environmental review adequate.
But the judges also said it was too early for the environmental groups to file their claims that drilling would be inconsistent with the forest’s management plan because those arguments aren’t ripe yet. In other words, a specific well that harms old-growth trees, wildlife habitat or water would have to be approved before the groups could sue. The appeals judges left open the possibility that those claims could be refiled later.
Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman, who argued the case for the environmental groups, said the groups were still looking at their next steps.
“We’re disappointed the court didn’t strike down this project, but the ruling was on narrow procedural grounds,” Freeman said Friday. “It allows us to continue to fight to protect the HDs. Nothing prevents us from continuing to challenge the project.”
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No one from the U.S. Forest Service or BLM was immediately available to comment after business hours Friday.
The lawsuit was filed by the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Wild, The Wilderness Society and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
BP America Production Co., Elm Ridge Exploration Co., EXOK Inc., Petrox Resources Inc. and XTO Energy Inc. had intervened in the case on the side of the federal agencies.