The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has illegally pushed through dozens of oil and gas projects in western Colorado without doing any analysis of their air pollution impacts, according to a lawsuit filed today by environmental and health groups.
Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado by public interest law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Wilderness Workshop, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, the lawsuit shows that BLM has violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to analyze the air pollution resulting from thousands of new oil and gas wells it has approved in recent years.
“BLM is turning a blind eye to the air pollution and health impacts that result from the oil and gas projects it authorizes,” said Michael Freeman, lead Earthjustice attorney on the case. “Communities have a right to know how the air they breathe will be degraded by new drilling in Colorado.”
The lack of analysis has been obscured through sleight of hand by the agency: in more than 30 environmental assessments for oil and gas projects issued by BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, BLM asserted that the resulting air pollution had already been analyzed in a 2006 environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared by the field office when it approved leasing the Roan Plateau for oil and gas drilling. In reality, the Roan EIS did not account for any of these other projects—some of which are more than ten miles away from the Plateau. As a result, the air pollution that actually results from those projects has never been considered by BLM.
“Over the past several years, BLM has approved thousands of oil and gas wells with no analysis of the air pollution they cause,” said Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop. “Instead, the agency simply cut-and-pasted incorrect boilerplate statements about the Roan EIS into its environmental analyses for dozens of projects.”
The complaint specifically targets three examples of the practice: a 2008 proposal by Williams Energy; an Antero Resources project approved in 2010; and a 2010 Laramie Energy plan. The three projects involve a combined total of nearly 400 oil and gas wells. The complaint seeks an order directing BLM to halt its improper reliance on the Roan EIS. The plaintiffs also seek to require the agency to analyze the air pollution from each of the projects, with a NEPA analysis that also addresses the cumulative air pollution caused by the numerous similarly-flawed oil and gas projects.
“BLM needs to slow down and take a hard look at all the air pollution it has authorized in recent years,” said Sharon Buccino of NRDC. “Drilling poses real health risks for western Colorado communities, and the residents need BLM’s protection.”
Since 1999, oil and gas development has exploded in Colorado. In 1999, just over 1,000 drilling permits were issued in the entire state. By 2008, that figure had ballooned to 8,027 permits. In 2010, 2,037 drilling permits were issued in Garfield County (which covers part of the Colorado River Valley Field Office) alone.
In Colorado and nearby states, the boom in drilling has coincided with large increases in air pollution. Living with this pollution has become part of everyday life for residents in the gas patch. In its 2010 report to the public, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission stated that “[r]educing emissions from oil and gas exploration and production will help reduce ozone pollution and improve visibility, as well as reduce odors and exposure to air toxics.”
For example, the State of Colorado estimates that oil and gas development accounts for more than 87 percent of all human-caused volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in Garfield County. The industry is also responsible for 72.5 percent of the human-caused nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions there. These VOCs and NOx react in the atmosphere to form ozone, a pollutant that causes a variety of adverse health impacts, including respiratory problems such as lung inflammation and asthma, and can even lead to premature death.
Air quality monitoring has indicated that Garfield County may be in danger of violating federal air quality standards for ozone.
Another air pollutant emitted during oil and gas development is benzene, a known human carcinogen. Elevated levels of benzene have been reported in areas near oil and gas wells. Colorado estimates that oil and gas sources emit 67 percent of the benzene emissions in Garfield County.
NEPA requires BLM to analyze these air quality impacts and disclose them to the public. Doing so allows the agency and the public to make informed decisions about how to minimize pollution and manage threats to public health, safety and the environment. By failing to comply with NEPA, BLM has undercut efforts to address the air pollution caused by oil and gas development.