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BLM approves opening 171,000 acres for oil, gas drilling in western Colorado

Locals say plan could pollute water resources for agriculture, wildlife populations
Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

After about 10 years of collecting public comments and speaking with county and state leaders in Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management earlier this month released a final version of its management plan for land under the Uncompahgre Field Office. But the new plan is entirely different from the one that was originally open for public review.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and county commissioners from San Miguel, Gunnison and Ouray counties expressed appreciation for the BLM’s willingness to work with conservation agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife as it implements the new land management plans. But local governments still have public health and environmental concerns about the new plan, which opens 171,000 acres to leasing for oil and gas permits.

“We very much appreciate that they have improved the plan,” San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper told The Durango Herald in a phone interview. “But it didn’t go far enough.”

Cooper said new oil and gas drilling in places like the North Fork Valley threatens the localized food economy the community has built on rural agricultural and organic orchards. Development could leak harmful pollutants into the waterways, which also impacts soil health in an increasingly arid location. As the last of the coal mines close, the North Fork Valley has increasingly relied on its agriculture to support the local economy.

And the Gunnison sage-grouse population in the San Miguel Basin has already been affected by the relatively small amount of oil and gas development that has occurred in the county.

“We’ve never seen this high a rate of extinction,” Cooper said.

The BLM plan was released the same week that a study from Harvard University found exposure to PM2.5, a chemical created by the mixing of gases emitted by industrial facilities and oil and gas development, increases the COVID-19 death rate.

Joro Walker, general counsel for the environmental protection group Western Resource Advocates, said many people in Colorado are exposed to the PM2.5 pollutant.

President Donald Trump’s administration decided not to tighten regulations on PM2.5, while opening 95% more land in the Uncompahgre area to oil and gas leasing, which “seems to suggest there is a choice between certain industries and public health, but this is a false narrative,” Walker said.

The study from Harvard on higher death rates from COVID-19 among people exposed to oil and gas pollution “serves as a lesson for us – that protecting public health saves us money,” Walker said.

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources was able to secure some sections of land that would not be used for surface development and ensured that the BLM will need to work with the state on stipulations for the amount of construction density allowed going forward to protect big-game habitat.

But in the new plan, 102,000 acres of land intended for no-surface occupancy, or protected wilderness areas, were lost to oil and gas development.

Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, said his agency wanted to see inclusion of a safety plan for the Gunnison sage-grouse, but the BLM was dismissive of the department’s concerns.

The partnerships between the BLM and the state “make the plan better than what it was, but we didn’t get everything,” Gibbs said, despite the agency’s advocacy on behalf of the state.

In an email to the Herald, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the new Uncompahgre land management plan doesn’t open any new lands for oil and natural gas development.

Instead, it “balances oil and natural gas development with conservation of land, wildlife, cultural and other natural resource values,” whereas environmental groups don’t want to extract oil at all, Sgamma wrote.

But Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the previous plan approved by the public “protected the lands people value the most while allowing extraction.”

The new plan shows that under Trump’s administration, “everything has to take a back seat to extraction,” Pearson said.

Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.