Gas, oil leases clear review by BLM

Environmentalists say study fails to address water, air, road impacts

The Bureau of Land Management released a final environmental assessment for the leasing of 12 parcels covering more than 12,000 acres in Southwest Colorado. But local environmental groups involved in the issue said the agency’s decision and its assessment process failed to fully analyze potential impacts of drilling.

“Unless the final environmental assessment is three times the size and much more intensive than the draft, many issues are not even close to being dealt with,” said Dan Randolph, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

After receiving more than 70 pages of comments on its draft assessment, BLM found that leasing the parcels for natural-gas and oil development would have no significant impact on the surrounding environment.

Eight of the 12 parcels, encompassing 10,761 acres, are in La Plata County near Hesperus. In its decision, BLM deferred leasing of 60 acres near U.S. Highway 160 to preserve the viewshed near the highway, which is designated as a scenic byway.

The leases will be approved for sale in February after a 30-day protest period that began when the analysis was released Friday.

Environmental groups involved in the public comment process said the BLM failed to take a “hard look” at how drilling will specifically effect various parts of the environment such as county roads, water resources and air quality. Several residents were concerned with the potential for hydraulic-fracturing technology to affect the area’s already-scarce water resources.

In many cases, the BLM responded that it could not analyze specific impacts until it receives individual drilling permit applications that would specify issues such as traffic routes, proposed drilling techniques and technologies and development locations.

According to its current leasing policy, the federal agency first analyzes the potential effects of leasing and potential development on a parcel, then conducts another environmental analysis when it receives a drilling permit application.

The environmental assessment for a lease sale evaluates if the area is “OK for development to be there” while the assessment required for a drilling permit “assesses the exact type of development,” said Vanessa Lacayo, a spokeswoman with the agency. Both assessments include public-comment processes.

The Bureau of Land Management started the two-staged analysis process in 2010 to engage and involve the public before the parcels are leased, Lacayo said.

But that process fails to evaluate the cumulative and larger-scale impacts of drilling, said Lesli Allison with the Chama Peak Landowner Alliance.

Once BLM has granted a lease, it guarantees a right to develop on a certain parcel, said Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. By deferring site-specific analysis until after that lease has been granted, BLM fails to take a hard look at environmental impacts on parcels before they are opened to development, he said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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