Opponents of a plan to drill dozens of natural gas wells in the southwest Colorado mountains, including roadless forest land, accused federal officials Thursday of playing a shell game with public lands.
Attorneys representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance and four other groups argued in federal court that agencies didn't follow the forest management plan when they approved a project authorizing about 140 wells in the San Juan National Forest in 2007.
Of special interest are the HD Mountains, which include roadless areas. The mountains make up roughly 45,000 acres of the 125,000-acre project area.
Industry officials note that there are already several wells in the area. Environmentalists, though, say most of the drilling has been on the western flank of the mountains and beyond. They say the HD Mountains are one of the last pockets of undisturbed backcountry in western Colorado.
Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman told U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch that federal officials played a shell game when they said measures to reduce harmful impacts on air and water quality and wildlife habitat would be reviewed later, when individual wells were approved.
"Those commitments have been routinely ignored," he added.
Freeman said the U.S. Forest Service erred when it approved the project even though its own environmental analysis said some of the development would conflict with the forest management plan. Pledges to avoid old growth forests and protect key wildlife habitat and waterways have been ignored, he added.
Forest management plans are comprehensive documents similar to a zoning plan that says what activities can occur on forest land and where.
Department of Justice lawyer John Most countered that allegations of the government acting arbitrarily are "lost in an ocean" of evidence to the contrary. He said the review of the project and public input were extensive and that seasonal restrictions on drilling to protect wildlife are an example of the steps taken to minimize the effects.
Most also disputed Freeman's argument that the forest management plan is a set of mandatory requirements that any projects on the land must adhere to.
"The forest plan is a guidance," Most said. "It does not serve as a blueprint."
The law gives land managers flexibility to carry out their directive to balance multiple uses of public land, Most said.
Freeman disagreed, saying that federal laws and the Forest Service's own guidebook make clear that forest managing plans are binding.
Matsch said the question about whether provisions of a forest management plan are just guidelines or requirements under the law "is a little twist on this case that I'm concerned about."
Five energy companies have intervened in the case in support of the federal government. So far, 21 wells have been approved.
The companies are drilling in underground coal seams to extract methane gas. Pumping out groundwater releases the pressure that traps the natural gas in the seams.
The area is in the San Juan Basin, which extends from southwest Colorado to northwest New Mexico and is a major gas-producing region.
It wasn't clear when Matsch would rule on the case. "It will be next year before you get a decision," he told attorneys at the end of the hearing.