Federal judge upholds drilling in SW Colorado
DENVER – A federal judge has upheld approval of gas wells in parts of the southwestern Colorado mountains, rejecting arguments by environmentalists that the plan doesn’t adequately protect sensitive areas and wildlife.
U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch said in his ruling, issued Monday, that any flaws in the plan authorizing about 140 natural gas wells in the San Juan National Forest are “minor in proportion to the full context of the agency action under review.”
Environmental groups contend the project conflicts with the forest management plan. They say federal agencies’ pledges to avoid old growth forests and protect key wildlife habitat and waterways on the public land have been ignored.
Of special interest are the HD Mountains, which include roadless areas and make up roughly 45,000 acres of the 125,000-acre project area.
Environmentalists also argued in a December hearing that the environmental assessment of the project didn’t adequately consider the potential effects on air quality, particularly on nearby federal wilderness areas and national parks in Colorado and New Mexico.
Matsch said the environmental groups can appeal to state and federal environmental agencies if the pollution from the energy development violates air-quality standards. He also disagreed with the argument that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acted arbitrarily in approving the drilling. He said the plan authorizing the wells contains detailed ways to protect wildlife and old-growth forests and the measures have not been “regularly disregarded” as the environmental groups claim.
Matsch rejected the groups’ contention that the agencies should have considered whether approving the wells would prevent the HD Mountains and the Archuleta Mesa from future designation as federal wilderness areas. He wrote that the HD Mountains are managed for multiple uses, including oil and gas development.
Energy companies that intervened in the lawsuit on the government’s behalf note there are already gas wells in the area.
Environmentalists, though, say most of the drilling has been on the western flank of the mountains and that the area is one of the last pockets of undisturbed backcountry in western Colorado.