BLM settles air pollution lawsuit

Gas drilling pads dot the base of the Roan Plateau in western Colorado [Courtesy Ecoflight.org]

Gas drilling pads dot the base of the Roan Plateau in western Colorado [photo courtesy Ecoflight.org]

August 5 Press Release from Earthjustice:

BLM to Examine Air Pollution Before Approving New Oil & Gas Wells in Western Colorado

Denver, CO — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and four conservation groups today announced that BLM will reexamine the air pollution potential of 34 oil and gas projects involving more than 1,300 wells proposed on Colorado’s Western Slope. The agency will also—for the first time—establish and maintain a publicly-accessible Internet tracking system for federal drilling permits in its Colorado River Valley Field Office. These important steps to protect public health and Colorado communities are the basis for the settlement of a lawsuit that the conservationists brought to address oil and gas-related impacts in Garfield County and the surrounding area.

“We’re pleased that BLM is reconsidering these projects and finally addressing the smog and toxic air pollution they cause,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman. “This settlement will allow the agency and the public to better protect the health of Coloradans, and to preserve the remarkable scenic vistas in our state.”

Oil and gas development has become a major contributor to air pollution in the intermountain west.  Parts of Colorado now violate federal ozone standards, largely because of drilling. Ozone (smog) is linked to respiratory and heart problems and increased mortality for children and the elderly. Oil and gas development also has contributed to the degradation of visibility in parts of western Colorado.

In the settlement, BLM agrees to conduct analysis as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of the air pollution generated by the 34 projects. By taking another look at the drilling, completion and operation of those projects, the agency will allow decision makers and the public to understand the impacts the over 1,300 wells could have on air quality, public health, and visibility. Until BLM completes that analysis, no new drilling permits implementing these projects will be approved.

“BLM can’t effectively protect air quality unless it knows how much pollution it is approving,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But the Colorado River Valley Field Office approved more than a thousand wells without any air quality analysis at all. This settlement halts that practice.”

The settlement further requires BLM to establish a well permit tracking system on its website for the Colorado River Valley Field Office. Previously, the Field Office had approved numerous permits without keeping track of the NEPA analyses on which they relied. Under the settlement, BLM will establish a tracking system that discloses the total number of approved drilling permits in the field office and the NEPA document covering each permit.

In addition, the agency has agreed to post pending applications for permits to drill on its Field Office website for public review. Such online notice represents a major improvement over BLM regulations, which only require that such applications be posted on the wall of the field office.

“These steps will open up BLM’s permit approval process to the public,” said Wilderness Workshop interim executive director Will Roush. “Interested citizens can more easily get the information they need to have a say in that process.”

The June 2011 federal lawsuit settled by this agreement was brought by the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club. That case, Wilderness Workshop v. Crockett, challenged BLM’s practice of approving oil and gas projects in the agency’s Colorado River Valley Field Office without first analyzing the air pollution they would cause.

Over several years, BLM relied on a 2006 environmental impact statement for the Roan Plateau to grant approval for dozens of drilling projects in Garfield County. Unfortunately, that NEPA document did not actually address the impacts of the projects being approved. As a result, BLM never considered the air pollution that could be caused by the more than 1,300 wells in those projects. Today’s agreement corrects the error and grants the agency a second chance to make decisions that protect public health, scenic vistas and the human and natural communities of Colorado’s West Slope.

“This settlement is a solid first step towards holding the natural gas and oil industry responsible for the air pollution it causes while drilling and fracking,” said Deb Nardone, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign. “Taking a hard look at the air pollution that results from drilling will further demonstrate why the federal government should be focusing on clean energy rather than climate disruptive fossil fuels.”

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BLM settlement prompts new air analysis, online drilling updates

… The BLM paid $98,000 in legal costs to the environmental groups as part of the settlement.

The settlement mandates that the BLM put its new tracking system online by Sept. 5. It will be updated bi-weekly and will include all drilling permits issued by the Colorado River Valley BLM office since October 2011, and their environmental analyses. Pending drilling applications also will be posted for public review, along with approvals and denials. Previously, the public had to visit the office, in Silt, to review these documents and applications.

“It helps get information out about the air quality analysis that we’ve done and will continue to do,” said Boyd. “We think the public will appreciate that” …

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BLM to take a closer look at air pollution from oil and gas drilling on Colorado’s Western Slope

FRISCO — Acknowledging a gap in its analysis of Colorado western slope oil and gas drilling activities, the Bureau of Land Management this week agreed to take a much closer look at air pollution resulting from 34 projects covering a total of more than 1,300 proposed wells in the jurisdiction of the agency’s Silt-based Colorado River Valley Field Office.

More than 250 wells have already been drilled, and 54 more have been permitted, but any new permits will require additional analysis …

… The air over parts of Colorado already violates federal ozone standards, largely because of drilling. Ozone-laden smog is linked to respiratory and heart problems and increased mortality for children and the elderly. Ozone has also been documented to damage plants in Rocky Mountain National Park. The EPA is facing a lawsuit over national park ozone pollution, but the agency has approved A Colorado plan to address regional haze …

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1,300 wells under review for air quality [subscribers only]

… Two energy companies, WPX Energy and Ursa Piceance, had intervened in the lawsuit as defendants. A number of other companies’ projects also were at issue in the suit.

BLM spokesman David Boyd said Monday that the agency has “already been doing the new analyses agreed to in the settlement for some time — this settlement reflects and memorializes what we are already doing.”

He said the agency continues to disagree with the main argument of the 2011 lawsuit, which was that it shouldn’t have used the Roan Plateau air modeling for wells outside the Roan planning area.

“We did that because that model looked at the full airshed, so we felt that was valid,” he said.

However, when the judge in the Roan Plateau case took issue with the modeling itself, the agency decided it made sense to settle, he said.

Boyd said some of the 1,300 wells already have been drilled, although he doesn’t know how many, and those aren’t affected by the settlement. He said 116 wells have been approved using new air modeling …

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2 Comments on “BLM settles air pollution lawsuit”

  1. Bob Arrington Says:

    But as stated at EAB by Shauna Kocman, PhD, PE, the BLM relies on others for data for in their modelinng. This is the same modeling the judge was questioning and probably why. BLM has a Memo Of Understanding with other agencies that will steer data and methods they will use. She also answered in questioning, that there is no penalties or violations defined in the permits. In their charge of “Managing Air Quality”, they are looking at Impacts and Mitigation, but have no tools to require (at least any that they admit to) and go by State air pollution standards from the CDPHE.
    In other guidlines, however, they must consider Climate Change in Order 3226 of 2001 and must observe 1 additional cancer case in 1 to 100 million people. As a note, McKenzie’s report on people within 1/2 mile of a well increases by 4 per million (from 6 to 10).with 1 well in a section (1 mile by 1 mile) 1300 wells would cover 1300 sq. miles with the 4 person increase (except in the corners of the section 😉 ).
    This looks like a new report with the same-o, same-o results, even if they rename the model. It is time for people to pound on the increase cancer risk and the 6-12% methane release effect on climate change.

  2. Peggy Tibbetts Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Bob. I debated posting this news because it’s not like the BLM has the power or authority to do anything about air pollution other than to look at it.

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