A federal judge has overturned the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of 16 wells that are part of a much larger natural gas drilling project in northeast Utah, faulting the agency for not properly analyzing impacts to air quality and recreational activity.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furse’s decision also scolded BLM for not using up-to-date information to evaluate the potential impacts of the wells associated with Gasco Energy Inc.’s project on ground-level ozone pollution, concluding that the agency "committed harmful error" by failing to explain why it chose to rely on less accurate air-quality data.
Furse this week issued an order concluding that "BLM acted arbitrarily and capriciously" in approving the wells. She remanded the decision record and "finding of no significant impact" to BLM "to reconsider" approving the wells in the Uinta Basin, near the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area — a major bone of contention for environmental groups challenging the project.
Furse’s order was sparked by a 2013 lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah against the Interior Department, BLM and three agency officials. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Wilderness Society and Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit.
The environmental groups say Furse’s order is a major blow to the much larger project, approved in a June 2012 record of decision hailed by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The ROD authorizes Denver-based Gasco to drill nearly 1,300 wells in the next 15 years across more than 206,000 acres of mostly federal land in the Uinta Basin. But additional environmental review is required before any wells can be drilled.
"This decision not only sends the 16-well project back to the drawing board, it calls into question any drilling approved under the larger Gasco project," said Stephen Bloch, SUWA’s legal director.
"The court was clear that BLM cannot view the environmental impacts of drilling these 16 wells in isolation," Bloch added. "Rather, it needs to consider those impacts in combination with the regional impacts of drilling more than 28,000 wells BLM predicts could be developed over the next 10 years" in the region.
It’s not clear how BLM plans to proceed in the wake of the court order. A BLM spokeswoman in Utah said the agency does not comment on matters involving ongoing litigation.
But the decision is sure to rile Utah’s congressional leaders, including House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R), who had praised BLM’s decision four years ago to approve the Gasco project.
BLM had revised and scaled back the massive project before Salazar announced the ROD had been signed.
The revisions included reducing the number of natural gas wells at the project site from nearly 1,500 wells in parts of Uintah and Duchesne counties to a maximum of 1,298 wells. The final proposal also cut by nearly half the size of evaporation ponds that contain drilling waste and emit air pollutants — to 78 acres from 143 acres.
The approved project also called for using more directional drilling techniques to avoid the sensitive Nine Mile Canyon area, though critics maintain that the total project would still affect the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
The Desolation Canyon area is not suitable for a large-scale drilling project, said Phil Hanceford, assistant director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center in Denver.
"There are places in America that are simply too wild to drill, that should never become home to well pads, large trucks, pump jacks, and the noise and destruction these activities can cause when located in the wrong places," Hanceford said. "The judge’s decision reflects what we have long believed, and our legal case proves: The BLM did not seriously consider the impacts that drilling these wells would have on the area."
After the 2012 ROD, additional site-specific reviews for specific wells still are required before any surface-disturbing activity can begin.
Thus, Gasco the following year submitted the 16-well project plan, which BLM approved in July 2014. Those wells were among the first associated with the Gasco project to be approved by BLM. The project was slated for construction on three drilling pads adjacent to the Upper Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River.
SUWA and the other plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that BLM "failed to take a hard look at three distinct issues," starting with "the direct effects of this project on air pollution because BLM used improper data" from air quality monitors at Canyonlands National Park, nearly 100 miles south of the Uinta Basin.
This data, which was part of the environmental impact statement analyzing the total 1,300-well project, was used in air quality modeling.
BLM argued that the air quality monitors closer to the project site had not been in operation long enough to "provide sufficient data on which to base on accurate ‘near field’ analysis," according to the judge’s order.
But Furse sided with the groups, writing that BLM should have updated the air quality modeling.
"We do not know why the BLM decided it did not need to reconsider its use of the Canyonlands data" when it conducted the environmental assessment (EA) of the 16-well project, Furse wrote. "Without this analysis, the Court cannot find the BLM satisfied its obligation to take a hard look at new data."
In addition, the groups argued that BLM didn’t examine "the potential impacts to recreation on the Green River from the noise of development and operations resulting" from the project.
"The BLM argues the presence of a 200-foot hill between the well pad and the Green River obstructs both the recreationists’ view of the well pad and the noise impact during construction without reference to any other document or study," Furse wrote.
She agreed with the groups, writing in her order that "BLM committed reversible error by failing to provide any analysis of noise impacts on Green River recreation." BLM, she added, "acted arbitrarily in concluding without apparent basis that the project would have no significant sound impacts on recreation."
Lastly, the groups alleged that BLM "failed to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts from the 16-Well project and other activities on ozone pollution" in the Uinta Basin.
BLM relied on a March 2012 environmental impact statement for its cumulative impacts analysis, "which considered 21,293 new oil and gas wells along with 4,144 past and present wells in the Uinta Basin," the order says.
But at the same time, BLM published the "Greater Uinta Basin Oil and Gas Cumulative Impacts Technical Support Document." It projected 28,417 new oil and gas wells would be drilled in the basin.
SUWA and others argued that BLM should have used this technical analysis in studying the ozone impacts of the 16-well project, saying the agency intended it to guide its review of projects within the Uinta Basin.
"Moreover, SUWA contends that even if the BLM had good reason to reject its own development forecast, the BLM should have explained why" in the EA analyzing the wells, Furse wrote.
Furse concluded in her order that "BLM committed harmful error by failing to explain why it chose to rely" on the document analyzing a smaller number of projected wells in the basin, instead of the technical support document that forecast 7,000 more wells in the region.
"Without an explanation of its choice, the Court can only assume the BLM made an arbitrary and capricious decision, given the BLM’s own conclusion that the Uinta Basin Technical Support Document contained more accurate data," she wrote.