Clean Air Settlement to Strengthen Fracking Safeguards in Colorado
Bureau of Land Management Holds off on Drilling, Commits to Accounting for Air Pollution along Front Range and Beyond
of Land Management (BLM) has agreed to prohibit drilling on several oil and gas
leases and commit to addressing the clean air impacts of drilling and fracking
throughout eastern Colorado, including the Front Range, in a settlement of a
lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians.
“This is a great news for clean air along the Front Range
and beyond, which is increasingly at risk because of ramped up drilling and fracking,”
said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program
Director. “The BLM has basically
agreed to look before it leaps, which is a common sense approach to keeping
people in Colorado safe from air pollution.”
WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit challenged the Bureau of Land
Management’s 2009 decision to issue 12 oil and gas leases covering 3,680 acres in
Weld and Morgan Counties north of Denver.
The suit challenged the BLM’s failure to address the impacts of drilling
and fracking to smog levels along the Front Range of Colorado in accordance
with the Clean Air Act, as well the agency’s failure to check other air
pollution impacts in the region under federal environmental review laws.
The Front Range of Colorado, including the nine county
region from Douglas County north to Larimer and Weld Counties, is out of
compliance with federal limits on ground-level ozone pollution, also known as
smog. The area was designated as
“nonattainment” in 2007. Ozone is
a poisonous gas that can trigger asthma attacks and damage lungs. It forms when pollution from tailpipes,
smokestacks, and oil and gas drilling operations reacts with sunlight.
Drilling in and around Weld County is a major contributor to
the region’s smog pollution. These
operations, including fracking and production, continue to release more ozone
forming compounds than cars and trucks along the Front Range. Although invisible to the naked eye,
these compounds are released from tanks, pipelines, and other equipment
associated with oil and gas operations (see video showing what these emissions
look like through infrared cameras). And while Colorado has adopted some
rules to limit pollution from oil and gas development, a number of sources fall
outside the rules.
The settlement, which was signed on January 17 by U.S.
District Court Judge John Kane in Denver, commits the BLM to completing a
comprehensive inventory of air emissions from oil and gas operations in the
Royal Gorge Field Office, which encompasses all of eastern Colorado, including
the Front Range (see map of Royal
Gorge Field Office).
The BLM also agreed to prepare a full air quality analysis
before allowing any drilling on the 12 leases that were sued over. And to comply with the Clean Air Act,
the BLM agreed to ensure that emissions from drilling and fracking would not
worsen the Front Range’s smog problem.
“Our position from the start has been that if the BLM can’t
protect air quality from drilling and fracking and keep people safe, then it
shouldn’t be allowed,” said Nichols.
“This agreement puts the breaks on drilling a handful of leases, but we
hope that it spurs the BLM to exercise some common sense restraint, rather than
signing off on unchecked oil and gas development.”
The agreement comes as Weld County and the surrounding area
is facing increased drilling and fracking pressure. Already, more oil and gas wells fill this region than
anywhere else in Colorado. In
2011, 2,262 drilling permits were issued in Weld County, more than any county
in the state.
The settlement ensures that the BLM starts to take
responsibility for limiting the clean air impacts of oil and gas drilling and fracking
throughout the Royal Gorge Field Office. Advancements in fracking technologies
and drilling techniques have allowed oil and gas companies to tap the region’s
shale formations, bringing a new drilling rush to the area.
Weld County faces the most drilling pressure, but other
counties in the Field Office, including Yuma, Las Animas, Phillips, Morgan, and
Lincoln, are also in the oil and gas industry’s sights. And even other Front Range counties,
including Boulder, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Adams, and even Larimer, are also
facing increased pressure (see Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drilling
Although the BLM is often not the primary surface owner in
the Field Office, the agency owns and manages thousands of acres of
minerals. Where those federal
minerals underlay privately owned lands, the agency is still obligated under
federal law to minimize, or outright prohibit, surface impacts, including air