Court denies request to halt drilling in basin

Susan Montoya Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE — An effort to temporarily halt drilling across part of one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields has been rejected by a federal appeals court, leaving environmentalists to push their case against hydraulic fracturing in district court.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Bureau of Land Management in 2015, accusing the agency of failing to study the effects of fracking on local communities, the area’s cultural resources and the environment as it approved dozens of drilling permits in the San Juan Basin over a five-year period.

The groups appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals when a federal judge rejected their request to put drilling on hold while the merits of their case were heard.

The appeals panel backed the lower court in a ruling issued Thursday, finding that the groups did not present any argument or evidence to warrant a halt to drilling in the region.

The lawsuit challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of some 260 drilling applications, citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Environmentalists contend land managers were basing their decisions to grant permits on an outdated resource management plan that took into account traditional drilling techniques rather than today’s horizontal drilling and fracking to reach previously inaccessible pockets of fossil fuels.

The Bureau of Land Management is in the process of amending its management plan for the San Juan Basin in the face of an expected shale oil boom, but the judges noted that the recent uptick in development still falls within the agency’s expectations.

Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said the ruling was a setback but vowed the groups would continue with their case.

“They may have won this court ruling, but if they’re interested in winning integrity and public trust and demonstrating genuine care and consideration over the impacts of fracking to tribal interests, clean air and climate in the region, they need to step up,” Nichols said.

The lawsuit also argues that the San Juan Basin, which stretches into southern Colorado, encompasses dozens of prehistoric Native American great houses connected by hundreds of miles of ancient ceremonial roads. While the Chaco Culture National Historical Park represents the heart of the area, the complaint states numerous archaeological sites lie well outside park boundaries.

Native American groups, archaeologists and environmentalists have been pushing for officials to consider the cultural significance of the area as they reviews permit applications.

The agency said Friday it could not comment on the ongoing litigation, but noted that no leasing has occurred within 10 miles of Chaco park in recent years.

The agency announced last week it was planning an expanded review of management in the region to address the concerns.

Efforts to lease parcels near the park first drew fire in 2013. Those under consideration were several miles from the park and adjacent to existing oil and gas operations. The agency followed up in January 2014, saying no parcels near the park would be put up for bid.