A federal court last week ordered the Bureau of Land Management to halt drilling and sales of new oil leases in the Colorado River Valley while the federal agency considers the climate impacts of such development. That analysis was missing from its most recent resource management plan, which was completed in 2015.

The settlement brings conclusion to a 2017 lawsuit brought by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. 

The BLM plan would have allowed for thousands of new gas wells in the Colorado River Valley, which includes parts of Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Mesa and Routt counties. The new ruling means that the agency must consider closing some areas to oil and gas development. 

“BLM has agreed to take a hard look at the impacts of new fossil-fuel development on climate,” said Peter Hart, an attorney for Wilderness Workshop.

The plan, which outlines how the BLM manages public lands in the Colorado River Valley Field Office, includes about 750,000 acres of mineral estates; it would have allowed for more than 4,000 new wells on these lands.

Under last week’s settlement, the government agency must revamp the plan to adequately consider the climate impacts of increased greenhouse-gas emissions from transport and consumption of oil and gas. It must also consider land-management alternatives that would meaningfully limit drilling. 

BLM spokesman David Boyd said his agency is in the beginning stages of planning how to address and implement the settlement requirements. “It is all part of the process, and in this case, the settlement outlines what we need to do, so that is what we will do.”

The settlement comes as pressure increases on oil and gas companies to account for their climate impacts. Environmental groups say public-land managers such as BLM need to take responsibility for their role, too.

Gas flares at night near Parachute in the Piceance Basin Credit: Courtesy Wilderness Workshop

“This decision marks an important moment in recognizing the role of fossil-fuel extraction on our public lands, and how it’s fueling the climate crisis,” Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign, said in a prepared statement. “We need public lands to be a part of our climate solution, which means stopping this administration’s reckless agenda to drill in these places.”

The BLM must draft a supplemental environmental impact statement, or EIS, that identifies what lands could be closed to development and the environmental impacts of any new development. The public will be involved in this process.

“BLM has to go back and study these matters and disclose their findings to the public,” Hart said. “We will be taking an active role in this process and engaging the public to do the same.”

When the EIS is complete, the consortium that filed the first lawsuit will decide whether the research and remedies presented are adequate, Hart said. If not, they could return to federal court.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do that,” Hart said. “What we really want is our federal land managers to take a hard look at the potential impact of their actions on our public lands and protect these places we deeply care about.”

The process of drafting the supplemental EIS will probably take years, but the environmental agencies say they are ready to see the process through.

“While the full implications of this victory haven’t been ironed out, rest assured that we will continue to fight for more thoughtful and informed decision-making on our beloved public lands,” Hart said.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with Aspen Public Radio on coverage of the environment. Editor Elizabeth Stewart-Severy discussed this story on APR on Tuesday, Oct. 1.