Otero Ruling Could Help Save Roan Plateau

A major victory for Earthjustice and its allies, who've been fighting the plan in court since 2005

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Grins are breaking out in Colorado because of a court decision this week that stymies oil and gas drilling on New Mexico’s Otero Mesa grasslands.

The 10th Circuit Court ruled that drilling could not proceed on the Mesa because the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act with its leasing plan. In short, the court said, the plan failed to consider impacts on habitat, species and water, and didn’t look at alternatives.

It’s a major victory for Earthjustice and its allies, who’ve been fighting the plan in court since 2005.

The same issues are in play at the Roan Plateau, just one state away in Colorado, notes Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman. As with Otero Mesa, the BLM crafted a plan that exposes the Roan’s natural riches to destructive oil and gas exploration. This plan also failed to consider less devastating alternatives.

In both cases, the BLM chose aggressive development and didn’t look at options that would have protected the areas, Freeman said. The agency’s approach was to hand out leases first and then consider the environmental effects. The court said this was illegal at Otero, and Freeman believes the ruling’s impact will cross state lines.

Freeman has good reason to feel positive. The ruling comes at a time when the Obama administration is holding settlement talks on a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, challenging BLM’s leasing plan for the Roan.

"We are cautiously optimistic that the administration will do the right thing and work out a settlement that protects the Roan," Freeman said. "The Otero ruling confirms that BLM’s plan for the Roan plateau violated NEPA. It means the government cannot auction off public land for oil and gas drilling without first taking a hard look at how it will impact water quality, elk and deer, rare fish and air pollution on the Roan."

At nearly 2 million acres, Otero Mesa is one of the last undisturbed areas of Chihuahuan desert with the nation’s largest contiguous patch of a prairie grass called black gramma grass, which takes decades to re-establish. The mesa also is home to hundreds of species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. The Roan in northwestern Colorado comprises 70,000 acres of rippling, forested habitat for numerous coveted birds and animals. It rises a majestic 3,000 feet from the Colorado River plain.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.