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Court approves HD drilling

A ruling by U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch issued Monday upholds an April 2007 Record of Decision (ROD) by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that allows for expanded coal-methane drilling in the HD Mountains.

The case was brought about by five environmental groups suing to throw out the ROD.

The ROD described the process to be followed in authorizing future wells, “including the imposition of mitigation measures and measures for monitoring the sites,” Matsch described in his opinion.

In the opinion’s conclusion, Matsch writes, “The activity authorized by the ROD in this case is the exercise of property rights granted by mineral leases to explore for and extract coal bed methane gas from federal lands.”

Matsch further specifies that those federal lands include approximately 49,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest. The project area includes land in Archuleta and La Plata counties.

“The plaintiffs’ challenges must be considered from this perspective,” Matsch wrote. “This not an opening up of virgin wilderness. The proposal made to the agencies was to authorize increased production from known gas reserves to meet the demands for energy to support the amenities provided by urbanization.”

Matsch further states, “The extraction of non-renewable resources is an anathema to many in our society. Gas production is the antithesis of environmental protection.”

Despite the opinion in their favor, foresters don’t expect much of a change.

“We’re glad with the outcome of it, but we’ve still got a lot to do,” said Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest supervisor.

Throughout the lawsuit, Stiles said his agency has been working with the environmental groups and well operators on specific well design, and will continue to do so in the future. “We’ll be very careful on how we proceed.”

Stiles also said that, due to the lack of temporary injunction while the suit was active, numbers of well applications are not expected to noticeably rise, and that they’ve been “trickling” in over the last two years.

The case is still in the appeals stage and it is yet to be seen if any of the environmental groups will challenge the opinion.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed in the ruling and feel as though the merits of the ruling don’t match the merits of the case,” said Megan Graham, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, one of the environmental groups, adding that they believe there are still a number of outstanding issues that haven’t been addressed.

Graham said the Alliance is still determining what avenue to pursue at this point and is working with attorneys and coplaintiffs to determine if they will appeal or not. If no appeal is filed, years of controversy over drilling in the HD mountains could come to an end.

“I think, to the agency’s credit, they do try to engage all the various interests” in looking at specific wells, Graham said, but she added that it is a large project with “far-ranging impacts” and that a comprehensive analysis needs to be completed at every step.

“The alliance’s position has long been that the environmental statement process has not taken into account (all of the impacts),” Graham said.

“The national policies expressed in NEPA and in energy legislation are in direct conflict. The agencies are confronted with the dilemma that they cannot meet both goals,” Matsch wrote.“ They must attempt to achieve a balance between them that is a reasonable accommodation between harms done to either of them.”

randi@pagosasun.com