A natural gas-rich drilling plan across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope has been vacated by a federal court, which found that Department of Interior officials had not adequately taken into account the environmental risks.

Colorado Production

U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger of the District of Colorado ordered the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to revise the North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan (No. 21-cv-01268-MSK). 

Denver-based Gunnison Energy LLC years ago requested permission to drill and complete up to 35 horizontal wells from four well pads and one existing pad in the Mancos formation. The producer also planned to construct roads and natural gas gathering pipelines in Gunnison and Delta counties. 

The long-term operational life of the project in 2016 was estimated at 30 years, during which time up to 700 Bcf of natural gas was expected to be produced, federal officials noted. 

Gunnison Energy initially planned to begin activity after the master development plan was approved. However, after the preliminary environmental assessment (EA) was completed in May 2018, the producer modified its proposal. The EA plan was revised to allow hydraulic fracturing to be done using the slickwater method rather than nitrogen foam.  

The revised EA was published in April 2021. A lawsuit soon followed by a coalition of environmental groups, which challenged the lack of a climate analysis. 

The coalition singled out BLM and USFS in the lawsuit last year “for failing to analyze potential water and climate pollution, or plan alternatives that would prevent such harm.” According to the lawsuit, the development would have caused about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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The lack of analyzing GHG emissions has led to lawsuits for other infrastructure in the country, which in turn have stalled oil and gas projects. The GHG question also has become a bone of contention at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In the Mancos case, “BLM acknowledged deficiencies in its analysis,” said attorney Peter Hart of the Wilderness Workshop. “Based on the court’s ruling, the agency must start over if they’re going to approve fossil fuel development in the area.”

Senior attorney Melissa Hornbein of the Western Environmental Law Center said the district court ruling “reinforces that the federal government can’t skirt disclosing the environmental impacts of its actions.”