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Orchards and vineyards blanket the North Fork Valley near Paonia Colo., Tuesday afternoon December 15, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A U.S. District Court judge blocked a plan approved by federal agencies for 35 fracked gas wells across 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land between Gunnison and the Grand Mesa, handing a victory to environmental groups suing the government for failing to take climate change into account in approving new drilling. 

U.S. District for Colorado Judge Marcia Krieger vacated previous approvals by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management allowing Gunnison Energy LLC to drill and frack wells as part of the North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan. Gunnison Energy has already drilled one well under the plan, Krieger’s opinion said. The plan allowed for 35 wells to be drilled from five pads spread across the area. 

“Based on the court’s ruling, the agency must start over if they’re going to approve fossil fuel development in the area,” said Peter Hart, an attorney with Wilderness Workshop, part of the coalition that had sued to block the drilling plan. 

“This will give BLM a chance to reconsider whether this is the right decision in the first place, and to contemplate alternatives that don’t destroy the headwaters of the North Fork, pristine roadless areas and our climate,” Hart said. 

Krieger wrote that she based her decision to vacate the drilling plan on the federal agencies’ own admission during lawsuit proceedings that they had failed some required steps in the National Environmental Policy Act process for considering well permits. Those admitted missteps, the judge wrote, included “the analysis of the potential impact of the new wells on emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane.”

The Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation agreed the plan should be remanded to them for reassessment, but asked the judge not to vacate or block the drilling plan entirely. They told the judge  one well was drilled and other permits had already been approved, and vacating the plan “would be unnecessarily disruptive to the operator,” Krieger’s opinion said. 

“By the agencies’ own admission, the plan should never have been approved in the first place . . . ,” Krieger wrote. “In this court’s view, allowing the agency the opportunity to fix the error is more important than forcing the public to abide by a decision that the agency concedes was improper.”

The environmental coalition’s 2021 lawsuit against the master plan said the federal agencies’ drilling approvals ignored recent executive orders and other rulings that they must weigh any proposal’s contributions to greenhouse gases and climate change. Previously, required steps under the National Environmental Policy Act had focused more on impacts on wildlife, air pollution and water quality. 

The coalition, which included WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, High Country Conservation Advocates and others, said releases of methane and other greenhouse gases during fracking would worsen climate change that has already raised Western Slope temperatures faster than other parts of North America. 

“Today’s ruling is an important victory for the North Fork Valley community because it ensures government accountability and protects our vital public lands, water resources and climate from misguided oil and gas development plans,” said Natasha Léger, executive director, Citizens for a Healthy Community, in a release responded to the judge’s vacate order.

“Climate action starts in places like Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where it’s absolutely vital to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. 

Gunnison Energy is a branch of Oxbow Group, both chaired by billionaire Bill Koch. In the same area as its fracking plan, Oxbow previously operated the Elk Creek Mine near Paonia. Koch is also famous in the area for spending lavishly to reconstruct and outfit a full Wild West town on his Bear Ranch property in Gunnison County, inaccessible to the public. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.