A group of ranchers, environmentalists and Navajo tribes is trying to restrict natural gas development in the San Juan Basin by seeking a court ruling forcing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reconsider its authorization of 9,942 new oil and gas wells in the Farmington area of northwestern New Mexico.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Western Resource Advocates, charges the Interior Department and BLM with hasty processing of well permits allowing intensive gas development in the area without following the legally required guidelines set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).

The group of plaintiffs said BLM has neglected its authority to limit lease development to maximum density in the basin. “We’re saying they need to flex a little muscle and impose some requirements,” Mike Chiropolos, attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said in an interview with NGI. While BLM has designated 75 Farmington areas for critical environmental concern, which will be closed to new surface occupancy, Chiropolos said those designations amount to an “illusory promise.”

“It’s a paper thing that looks good,” he said. “When you take into fact that these areas are all already under lease and the leases aren’t going anywhere because there are active producing wells, those provisions don’t mean anything on the ground.”

Chiropolos said his group isn’t out to cripple the San Juan Basin gas industry. He claims it just wants BLM to follow its own environmental rules.

“Our goal is to strike a balance between natural gas development, environmental protection, public health and local population’s desire for a sustainable, diverse economic base and decent quality of life now and in the future, after the gas boom is played out,” he said. “I can’t stress enough that we’re not trying to shut down the program.

“This is one of the most productive and densest gas fields in the country”

Chiropolos said that instead of breaking up the basin into four regions and examining the environmental impact of further development on each, the BLM should have looked at the San Juan Basin as a whole across state and administrative boundaries.

BLM should be forced to do a new environmental review of the entire basin “that properly gives a ‘hard look’ at the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of gas development in northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado and includes a reasonable range of alternatives that address conservation of surface resources,” plaintiffs said in their complaint.

Among other remedies, the group has asked the court to prevent further gas development in the entire basin until BLM complies with NEPA, NHPA and FLPMA.

BLM is relying on “voluntary measures, kind of hoping that the operators will cooperate to reduce the footprint of future drilling,” Chiropolos said. “We’re looking at the history of what has happened there — it’s a history of noncompliance, failure to achieve inspection and enforcement objectives — and we are saying that’s not good enough…

“They are deferring the environmental protection decisions, while they are authorizing the wells up front,” he said. “We are just looking for better environmental practices and a lower footprint. All the things that [Interior] Secretary [Gale] Norton talks about as being possible in Alaska and other sensitive areas we want to see applied here in the West, here in the Rockies.”

“There are rural communities across the region feeling the brunt of this development,” he said. “We’ve tried to be as collaborative and cooperative as possible throughout the planning process and the local folks down there feel their complaints fell on deaf ears. The tribal interests especially…are saying there was no actual consultation; they might have received a copy of the document in the mail, but there were no actual meetings or field visits to talk about the tribe’s concerns for cultural resource protection.

“These producers are making more money out of one highly productive well than is funding all the groups working on this issue in the region. My program here is funded to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year for a couple of attorneys and some support.”

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