Not So Fast: Proposed Colorado Oil & Gas Wells to Get Pollution Review

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will reexamine the smog and toxic air pollution potential of 34 oil and gas projects involving more than 1,300 proposed wells on Colorado’s Western Slope before it issues more federal drilling permits for the region, as part of a settlement with four conservation groups.

The agency also agreed to establish and maintain a publicly available tracking system for federal drilling permits on its website. Previously, it was only required to post the information on a wall in its field office.

“We’re pleased that BLM is reconsidering these projects and finally addressing the smog and toxic air pollution they cause,” says Michael Freeman, attorney for Earthjustice. “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.”

In June 2011, Earthjustice sued BLM on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club. The case, Wilderness Workshop v. Crockett, challenged the agency’s practice of approving oil and gas projects in the Colorado River Valley Field Office without conducting adequate air pollution reviews.

Parts of Colorado now violate federal ozone standards, largely because of drilling activities related to oil and gas development. This has created public health issues: smog is linked to respiratory and heart problems and increased mortality for children and the elderly. It has also degraded visibility in parts of western Colorado.

“BLM can’t effectively protect air quality unless it knows how much pollution it is approving,” says Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But the Colorado River Valley Field Office approved more than 1000 wells without any air quality analysis at all. This settlement halts that practice.”

Over several years, BLM relied on a 2006 environmental impact statement for the Roan Plateau to approve dozens of drilling projects in Garfield County. But that document didn’t properly address the potential impacts of the projects being approved, say the conservation groups.

"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," note the groups.

Under the settlement, BLM will analyze the air pollution that might be generated by the 34 projects, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Until it is done with that, there will be no new drilling permits approved.

The new tracking system will disclose approved well permits, along with their related NEPA analysis documents. BLM will also post pending permit applications on the website, making them more readily available for public review.

"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," says 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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