Bad science and analyses that do not meet the requirements of federal law mean the recently updated resource management plan for Bureau of Land Management administered lands in Montrose and surrounding counties is insufficient, and oil and gas development must be shelved for now, conservation groups said in a Wednesday lawsuit.
The groups want federal courts to halt implementation of the updated Uncompahgre Field Office resource management plan that was approved in April, until there is compliance with applicable laws.
The BLM in announcing the plan’s first update in about 30 years said it struck a fair balance between resources and multiple uses, including energy extraction.
The approved plan gives a nod, but not much else, to the imperiled Gunission sage-grouse, despite its critically low numbers, both the suit and a separate notice to sue sent to the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife Service allege.
The plaintiffs also argue in the filed suit that the BLM did not appropriately consider climate change in adopting the new resource management plan, or RMP.
“The Gunnison sage-grouse is presently experiencing catastrophic declines range-wide,” Talasi Brooks, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, Western Watersheds Project, said in a provided statement.
“The plan’s business as usual approach falls short of the urgent action required to preserve this species from the effects of rampant livestock grazing and oil and gas development.”
The BLM does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation and the government has not yet filed a response to the suit, which in addition to Western Watersheds Project, was brought by Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia, Western Environmental Law Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, High Country Conservation Advocates and the Sierra Club.
Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, cited a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision that she said found the government was responsible for climate change through resource management plans and oil and gas leasing.
Accordingly, “the decision to open up 95 percent of BLM lands and minerals to oil and gas leasing is not only unconscionable, but also a smoking gun,” Léger said, also in a provided statement.
“The public submitted 53,000 no-leasing comments to the Bureau of Land Management out of a total of 57,000 comments. Yet the BLM sided with industry to exploit and destroy the rare and irreplaceable ecosystem of the North Fork of the Gunnison River at the expense of future generations,” she said.
In announcing the updated plan in April, the BLM said it aligns with the Trump Administration’s priorities for providing access to public lands for many uses, while in turn being responsive to community needs and sage-grouse conservation.
The approved RMP, which does not include the Gunnison Gorge or Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, updated and combined the San Juan/San Miguel RMP of 1985 and the 1989 Uncompahgre Basin RMP. The document provides guidance for public land use on 675,800 acres of BLM-administered surface lands and 971,220 acres of federal mineral estate.
Critics immediately complained that the RMP could open up to 95 percent of covered lands to oil and gas development; they decried the agency’s rejection of the “North Fork Alternative” that had been up for consideration in the draft RMP, and which would have closed some areas to oil and gas leasing, with stricter surface use restrictions on places where leasing was allowed.
Instead, the BLM selected Alternative E, saying it responds to community needs while prioritizing access, energy development, economic growth and conservation stewardship.
In their suit, announced Wednesday, the conservation groups contend violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The BLM violated NEPA by not considering a no-leasing alternative, which was necessary in order to establish a baseline by which to analyze effects on resources and greenhouse gas emissions, the suit argues.
Accordingly, the approved resource management plan is not consistent with the BLM’s mandate to manage resources for multiple use, as it should have reasonably done because of the climate crisis and oil and gas development’s contribution to U.S. carbon emissions.
The complaint also alleges the agency failed to take a hard look at the severity and effects of greenhouse gas pollution, but instead used only a qualitative approach.
Under NEPA, the agency was also supposed to consider the long- and short-term effects of its actions.
“BLM failed to properly quantify the magnitude of methane pollution resulting from coal, oil and gas emissions sources in the planning area,” the suit states.
Instead, an outdated 100-year global warming potential was used for methane analysis and the agency “altogether failed to disclose or calculate methane emissions based on the relevant 20-year global warming potential,” the document says.
The BLM therefore underestimated both the amount and impact of methane emissions, according to the complaint.
Similarly, the BLM failed to take a hard look at the effects on wildlife, including the survival and recovery of the Gunnison sage-grouse, again in violation of NEPA, the plaintiffs allege.
The bird is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It is found in small pockets in Gunnison, Montrose, Delta, Mesa, San Miguel and Dolores counties, as well as southeastern Utah and a few other places in Colorado.
The largest population is in Gunnison County, but advocates last month said there are too few grouse left to sustain the species, unless drastic action to protect its habitat is taken.
Wednesday’s lawsuit says although the BLM in the new resource management plan acknowledges the likelihood that road construction, grazing and energy development will negatively affect the grouse, it “failed to reasonably employ available scientific information to evaluate or disclose the reasonably foreseeable impacts of those BLM-authorized actions on the habitat and viability of Gunnison sage-grouse populations present within the planning area.”
Although the agency noted some negative environmental impacts from greenhouse gas emissions — millions of metric tons each year, which contribute to human-driven climate change — it did not explain why its selected alternative under the RMP won’t result in degradation, as requited under the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the suit also charges.
The plaintiffs want a finding that the BLM violated the law, and for the courts to set aside approval of the plan, as well as place oil and gas leasing on hold until compliance is achieved.
The same plaintiffs also informed the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their intent to sue over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Those two federal agencies used a flawed an inadequate biological opinion to bolster approval of the RMP, without demonstrating they were protecting the grouse and its habitat, the notice alleges.
The groups said the biological opinion “completely ignores the recent population losses,” by relying on information that was current only through 2018, despite the availability of more recent data. Further, the opinion failed to sufficiently analyze direct or indirect effects energy development would have on the bird in the San Miguel Basin.
The notice of intent says the opinion assumes ongoing monitoring of range conditions and modifications of grazing permits will do enough to protect the bird, and further assumes that any waivers or modifications to oil and gas lease stipulations will be rare, while future analysis requirements will be enough.
But that constitutes reliance on “piecemeal site-specific consultations,” which actually is not sufficient, particularly when the BLM has been known to “sidestep specific Endangered Species Act consultations,” the notice of intent says.
The notice asks the agencies to restart the consultation process and halt any new habitat-disrupting activities until a full analysis is completed.