Fight over drilling southwest Colorado mountains in court
December 30, 2009
DENVER – Opponents of a plan to drill dozens of natural gas wells in the southwest Colorado mountains, including roadless forest land, accused federal officials Thursday of playing a shell game with public lands.
Attorneys representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance and four other groups argued in federal court that agencies didn’t follow the forest management plan when they approved a project calling for up to 140 wells in the San Juan National Forest in 2007. Michael Freeman of Earthjustice said federal officials played a shell game when they said measures to reduce harmful impacts on air and water quality and wildlife habitat would be reviewed later, when individual wells were approved.
“Those commitments have been routinely ignored,” Freeman told Judge Richard Matsch.
Freeman said the U.S. Forest Service erred when it approved the project even though its own environmental analysis said some of the development would conflict with the forest management plan. Pledges to avoid old growth forests and protect key wildlife habitat and waterways have been ignored, he added.
Forest management plans are comprehensive documents meant to set parameters for activities on the public land as well as identify areas to be protected.
Department of Justice lawyer John Most countered that allegations of the government acting arbitrarily are “lost in an ocean” of evidence to the contrary. He said the review of the project and public input were extensive.
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Most also disputed Freeman’s argument that the forest management plan is a set of mandatory requirements that any projects on the land must adhere to.
“The forest plan is a guidance,” Most said. “It does not serve as a blueprint.”
The law gives land managers flexibility to carry out their directive to balance multiple uses of public land, Most said.
Matsch said the question about whether provisions of a forest management plan are just guidelines or requirements under the law “is a little twist on this case that I’m concerned about.”
Five energy companies have intervened in the case in support of the federal government. So far, 21 wells have been drilled.
The project, which covers 125,000 acres, involves drilling into underground coal seams to extract the methane gas. Pumping out groundwater releases the pressure that traps the natural gas in the seams.
It wasn’t clear when Matsch would rule on the case.