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Drilling leases on 58,000 acres of public land in Colorado were awarded without proper environmental review

A federal judge was asked to void the leases awarded in 2018, but she instead ordered “remedial action” based on current air quality and wilderness studies in northwest Colorado

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Oil and gas leases on 58,000 acres of public lands in northwest Colorado were awarded by the federal Bureau of Land Management without adequate consideration for air quality and wilderness protections, a federal district judge ruled – but she stopped short of voiding the leases.

U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger remanded the leases to the BLM for “remedial action” for deficiencies outlined in her 20-page ruling.

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A lawsuit challenging the bureau’s leases was brought by four environment groups seeking to void the leases, but Krieger noted that even after updating the process the lease might still be in place.

“We are still working to unwind the legacy of the Trump administration, which broke a lot of laws in issuing leases,” said Stuart Gillespie, an attorney with Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that represented the group.

“We are reviewing the decision to determine next steps,” BLM spokesman Steven Hall said in an email. No permits for drilling have been issued on any of these leases, Hall said.

In June 2018, the BLM issued leases on 58,000 acres of public land in northwestern Colorado. In doing so it used an environmental assessment from a 2017 lease sale, instead of developing a new one, and a dated version of the model used to determine air quality impacts.

Krieger said that findings of the 2017 environmental assessment are “sometimes difficult to square with other evidence in the record,” such as the fact that the three-year average of ozone levels show Rio Blanco County repeatedly exceeded federal health standards.

“BLM overlooked evidence that leasing would result in greater particulate emissions, which would result in visibility impairments at Dinosaur National Monument,” the ruling said. Modeling was available to assess the impact of particulates, such those from coal-fired power plants and oil and gas operations, but was not used.

The environmental groups – WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, Rocky Mountain Wild and the National Parks Conservation Association – also challenged the lease sale for not taking into account areas with wilderness characteristics.

The BLM relied on its 2015 Resource Management Plan and the 2017 environmental assessment to determine that the lease sales did not overlap with wilderness areas, but additional wilderness areas were identified after the resource plan and environmental assessment..

“One cannot possibly argue that the BLM made a conscious, considered evaluation of the merits of protecting a specific wilderness area if the BLM was not aware of the existence of that wilderness area at the time it made its decision,” Krieger wrote.

The environmental groups contended that all the leases should be vacated, but Krieger stopped short of granting that action.

“If the defects identified by this court are minor, it may very well be that, upon remand, the BLM is likely to reconsider the issues but ultimately reach the same leasing decision,” Krieger wrote. “In that circumstance, premature vacatur of the existing leases would simply result in administrative delay and additional costs for all parties involved in order to re-lease the same lands.”

“We haven’t got full relief from the court, it is up to the Biden administration to finish the job,” Gillespie said. “The fight is not over.”


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