Judge Marcia S. Krieger said the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering an alternative to surface drilling of South Shale Ridge, an area outside of DeBeque that possesses all the attributes of wilderness. The court also held that the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by selling gas leases without considering the harm posed to the area's rare plants.
"The BLM originally adopted slant drilling as an option, but abandoned the idea when it opened South Shale Ridge to gas development. The court said that was a mistake," said Keith Bauerle, an attorney for Earthjustice, the non-profit environmental law firm that brought the lawsuit. "Today's decision forces the BLM to consider how gas development can proceed without destroying the environment."
South Shale Ridge features multicolored badlands with remarkable geological formations hidden within miles of twisting canyons. The area is popular for backcountry recreation such as hiking, and its wildlife provides good opportunities for hunting. In addition, South Shale Ridge is home to the bald eagle and extremely rare plants.
"The BLM tried to put off until tomorrow the careful thinking they should have done yesterday, said Josh Pollock, Conservation Director for Center for Native Ecosystems. "The BLM always says it will look at the impacts of drilling later on, after it has leased entire landscapes out to oil and gas companies. The court held that the Endangered Species Act requires the BLM to consult early on about how to avoid driving South Shale Ridge's rare species towards extinction."
BLM's official findings in 2001 recommended that South Shale Ridge be reconsidered for protection as a Wilderness Study Area. The BLM then publicly committed to amending its 1987 management plan to account for and properly mange South Shale Ridge's wilderness features. Then, in an about face, the BLM in November 2005 leased almost the entire area for oil and gas drilling.
"For years, the BLM has said that South Shale Ridge has all the qualities of wilderness and that the agency would consider ways to protect it." said Suzanne Jones, Central Rockies Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. "Citizens have been asking the BLM to protect this special place for decades and it's heartening that the court has held the BLM to its word by forcing the agency to consider real options for protecting the wilderness values of South Shale Ridge."
In this suit, Earthjustice represents the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Center for Native Ecosystems, Colorado Environmental Coalition, and Colorado Mountain Club.