A U.S. district judge vacated in part a plan by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow natural gas drilling on the South Shale Ridge north of Grand Junction, CO, because it violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Judge Marcia S. Krieger of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado issued the ruling in a lawsuit that had been filed against BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by several environmental groups (No. 06-cv-00296-MSK-MEH).

The action centers on a 15-mile-long parcel of land about two miles west of DeBeque, CO, that encompasses more than 32,000 acres of land.

South Shale Ridge is under the stewardship of the BLM, and for more than 30 years BLM has been considering what to do with it. It ultimately concluded that its primary management emphasis would be leasing it for energy development, and by 1992 it had leased all of the acreage. As of 2005, 30 leases remained active on about 11,000 acres, according to BLM.

Following a wilderness inventory by BLM in 2001, the agency considered redoing its 1987 Resource Management Plan to change the management priorities from energy development to conservation at South Shale.

In 2004 energy companies required that BLM reopen the leasing, and in response BLM noted that its 1987 plan had never been reconciled with the 2001 findings that the area had “significant wilderness characteristics.”

BLM then began a process to determine whether oil and gas leasing would affect the quality of the natural and human environment in a “significant manner or to a significant extent.” In September 2005 BLM issued its final environmental assessment, which concluded that leasing could continue and dismissed an option to consider “no surface occupancy” stipulations on the ridge. No surface exceptions allow drilling, but they only allow companies to access the minerals indirectly.

The Wilderness Society, the Center for Native Ecosystems, the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the Colorado Mountain Club and the Sierra Club in turn filed a lawsuit to prevent BLM’s revised plan from moving forward.

Krieger ordered BLM to stop all leasing and prevent any lease from taking effect on South Shale Ridge because she said the BLM’s environmental assessment violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Krieger said BLM had not considered the full effect of drilling on endangered and threatened wildlife. She also said BLM had not considered the option to allow energy companies to drill from outside the South Shale Ridge area without harming the surface of the land.

“The BLM originally adopted slant drilling as an option, but abandoned the idea when it opened South Shale Ridge to gas development,” said Earthjustice attorney Keith Bauerle. Earthjustice represents the environmental groups. He said Krieger’s “decision forces the BLM to consider how gas development can proceed without destroying the environment.”

Suzanne Jones, Central Rockies regional director of The Wilderness Society, said, “For years, the BLM has said that South Shale Ridge has all the qualities of wilderness and that the agency would consider ways to protect it. Citizens have been asking the BLM to protect this special place for decades and it’s heartening that the court has held the BLM to its word by forcing the agency to consider real options for protecting the wilderness values of South Shale Ridge.”

BLM’s Mel Lloyd, public affairs officer for the Western Slope, told NGI “the BLM does not have any formal response” on the court ruling. “We are taking the opportunity to confer with our solicitors to confirm what our next steps will be.”

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