Two years after conservation groups sued over oil and gas development near New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, they're now formally making their case in court.
A coalition of groups Friday filed their opening brief in litigation over drilling in the area, which is home to 1,000-year-old tribal artifacts and modern Navajo communities. The case had been stalled by a preliminary injunction battle environmentalists ultimately lost.
The tribal group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and WildEarth Guardians say the Bureau of Land Management is relying on an outdated resource management plan (RMP) to guide oil and gas permitting decisions in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The park itself is off-limits to development, but groups are concerned that new interest in the Mancos Shale is moving wells too close to the park and other cultural sites and harming nearby members of the Navajo Nation.
BLM has been using an RMP from 2003 that does not consider the effects of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing. The agency announced in 2014 that it would prepare an amended plan to account for new Mancos Shale development. That was in part because of revised estimates for the number of wells likely to be drilled in the area. In 2003, it estimated that nearly 10,000 vertical wells would be drilled. A 2014 analysis added nearly 4,000 Mancos Shale wells to the projection.
While the RMP amendment process is ongoing, BLM has prepared individual environmental assessments that tier to the 2003 RMP.
"The Federal Defendants have approved 362 individual Mancos Shale wells on a piecemeal basis and without first taking a hard look at the cumulative impacts to the environment, cultural resources, and people from horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing," the groups told the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in their brief.
The groups say that the approach violates the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider impacts from higher levels of development in the region.
During the preliminary injunction stage, the district court and later the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seized on the well projection numbers, noting that development of vertical wells had not yet exceeded the agency's projections. Even with increased Mancos Shale drilling, the overall impacts would still be within the levels anticipated in the earlier review, the courts said (Energywire, Oct. 28, 2016).
The environmental groups, represented in part by the Western Environmental Law Center, pushed back on that position in the recent brief, arguing that "the challenged Mancos Shale wells are in addition to, not in lieu of, the vertical wells contemplated in 2003," so the total foreseeable impacts still exceed the levels BLM previously considered.
Government lawyers have until June 9 to respond.
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