Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is throwing her support behind the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as it defends itself in court against environmentalists opposed to oil and gas development projects.
The environmentalists are pursuing a federal lawsuit to halt Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The oil companies plan to drill for oil and use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on 379,950 acres of public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management last year auctioned off more than 20,000 acres of land in western Colorado and the Eastern Plains to oil and gas companies. The agency has tentative plans to auction off much larger tracts of land in Colorado this year.
Part of the auctioned land runs next to the Colorado River near Palisade. Other auctioned property on the Eastern Plains is home to wildlife habitat.
Nevertheless, Coffman says the risk to the environment is small and the economic benefit is great.
“Colorado has intervened in this case to protect the state’s regulatory and economic interests that could be adversely impacted by a decision of the court,” Coffman said in a statement. “Also, we agree that the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental analysis of the impacts of the oil and gas leases meets the requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act.”
The lawsuit was filed by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The environmental group claims that 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to oil and gas development on public lands and waters.
“The Bureau of Land Management is continuing to throw our climate under the bus on behalf of oil and gas companies,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “With this agency having no interest at all in serving the American public, we have to stand up and do whatever it takes to stop them.”
Coffman said in her court filing just before Christmas that Colorado has an interest in the lawsuit because of “regulatory and economic interests in oil and gas development that could be impaired in this case.”
The case is pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
At issue are 67 leases the Bureau of Land Management granted to oil and gas companies.
WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility want the federal court to order the Bureau of Land Management to cancel the leases.
Some of the lease revenue would pay for programs to remediate any environmental damage caused by the drilling and fracking.
If the leases are canceled, Colorado would lose “funding for the very programs that prevent and mitigate adverse environmental impacts from oil/gas development, as well as funding for schools and county governments,” Coffman wrote.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says the oil and gas companies that already received the leases should not have their rights disturbed by any new legal action, according to a press spokeswoman.
“If the BLM is made to enact new guidelines or take new information into account, he believes those should be applied prospectively only,” Kathy Green, the governor’s spokeswoman, told The Colorado Statesman.
Coffman is joined in supporting the Bureau of Land Management by oil and gas industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Energy Alliance and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
“Consumers understand the great potential that our federal lands hold when it comes to developing our nation’s energy resources and our latest poll shows 80 percent of voters support increased development of U.S. oil and natural gas resources,” said Brooke Sammon, American Petroleum Institute spokeswoman.
The industry associations warn that a federal court loss in the Colorado case would revamp the government’s oil and gas leasing program nationwide, perhaps forcing higher prices onto consumers.
The Denver-based Western Energy Alliance said Coffman’s intervention in the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management was “helpful.”
Attorney General “Coffman is wise to intervene in a lawsuit by an unaccountable environmental group, which should not be able to block lawfully sold leases that include environmental protections as part of the terms,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
Local officials in several Colorado counties also are siding with Coffman.
WildEarth Guardians accuses the Bureau of Land Management of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to complete an environmental impact statement that discusses how the oil and gas leases might pollute air, water and soil.
Bureau of Land Management attorneys answered with court filings saying no environmental impact statement is required by the National Environmental Policy Act for the government to grant leases.
The environmentalists also want to pre-empt a pledge by incoming president Donald Trump, who has said he would open more public land for fracking.
Other parts of their lawsuit say the Bureau of Land Management is violating the Clean Air Act, which requires industry and government agencies to ensure compliance with federal air quality standards.
Heart attacks, asthma and lung disease from ozone are the greatest health risks created by oil and gas development, WildEarth Guardians says in its lawsuit.
“Oil and gas development activities, including wellhead compressors, condensate tanks and other pollutant emitting activities release high levels of the pollutants that contribute to the formation of ozone,” the lawsuit says. “[The] U.S. Bureau of Land Management has authorized much of this oil and gas activity through the issuance of federal oil and gas leases.”
Residents of the Denver and North Front Range regions of Colorado face some of the greatest health risks, WildEarth Guardians says.
“From Douglas County, Colorado, north to Larimer and Weld Counties, ozone levels consistently exceed allowable health limits, putting the region’s health at great risk,” their lawsuit says.
Bureau of Land Management officials declined to comment.
“At this time, the litigation is still ongoing and the BLM cannot comment on ongoing litigation,” said Courtney Whiteman, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman.