Crestone Eagle, November 2008:
USFW finds ‘no significant impact’
of drilling on Baca Refuge
Lexam given green light?
by Ceal Smith
On Wednesday, October 22, 2008 the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a Final Environmental
Assessment for the Planned Gas and Oil Exploration on Baca
National Wildlife Refuge, Saguache County, Colorado (Final
EA) authorizing the Canadian firm Lexam Explorations (U.S.A.)
Inc. to drill two exploratory “gas” wells on the
Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.
“The Bush administration’s decision to authorize
gas exploration on the Baca refuge just two weeks before the
election and while the administration itself is in its final
months in office is very disappointing, but not surprising.”
said Christine Canaly, San Luis Valley Ecosystem (SLVEC) Director.
An environmental analysis was conducted by the USFWS in response
to a lawsuit filed by SLVEC against USFWS. In November of
2007, Colorado Federal District Court Judge Walker D. Miller
ruled that the USFWS “shall prohibit all ground disturbing
activities related to the exploration and development of the
mineral estate underlying the Baca National Wildlife Refuge
(NWR) during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
process.” During litigation, the agency agreed to comply
with NEPA and conduct an environmental analysis. SLVEC’s
lawsuit is still pending.
“While the agency’s Final EA includes conditions
and protective measures on Lexam’s drilling operation
that were not in the draft assessment,” said Canaly,
“we still have many concerns about the scope and sufficiency
of the agency’s analysis. The agency appears to have
ignored public concerns about wetlands, noise, cumulative
impacts, and purchase (and retirement) of the mineral interests
lying beneath the public lands complex.”
Newly released emails, memos and other official records show
lawyers in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office
of the Solicitor allowed industry lobbyists and Lexam attorneys
to improperly influence the EA. The records were obtained
as a result of the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed
by the San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition (WPC) in
“Much like the recent Mineral Management Services situation,
it appears that Lexam may have been provided unfettered access
to the agency’s decision making process.” said
Brad Bartlett, attorney with the Energy Minerals Law Center
in Durango, Colorado who is representing SLVEC and the WPC.
“The revisions by Lexam’s attorney and industry-friendly
Bush officials may have significantly misrepresented the likely
impacts of drilling in the Baca NWR”, Bartlett added.
The Federal Court recently ordered USFWS to release the remaining
documents being requested by the WPC in a timely manner. These
documents are expected to reveal more specifically how Lexam’s
attorney and other third parties influenced the analysis and
final decision documents.
In Denver, employees of the Mineral Management Service’s
Royalty In Kind program were found to have accepted favors
from industry officials in exchange for preferential treatment
of industry contracts. Although headlines focused on the scandalous
activities in the Interior Department’s Denver offices,
the MMS scandal also involves questionable practices in the
selection and use of industry contractors. U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service is managed under the Dept. of the Interior.
The FWS received more than 48,000 letters criticizing the
draft study and demanding that the agency do a better job
of assessing the potential impacts of drilling. The National
Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado
Division of Wildlife and the Office of Archaeology and Historic
Preservation were among many who sharply criticized the study
earlier this year.
SLVEC, WPC and many others are asking USFWS to conduct a
full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Lexam’s
drilling proposal. An EIS requires a more comprehensive examination
of likely impacts than an Environmental Assessment.
As yet, there is no Comprehensive Conservation Management
Plan in place for the Baca NWR and one is not scheduled until
2010. Until such a plan is in place, the surface owners –
the American public – are not allowed on the refuge.
The Final EA authorizes Lexam to access and develop wells
on the refuge before the public gets to experience it in its
current pristine condition.
For the time being, USFWS has agreed to maintain the prohibition
on “ground-disturbing activities” issued by the
Federal Court in November 2007. Talks are ongoing to extend
this agreement into next year.
According to a WPC spokesperson, “We are likely headed
back to Court. Should a new lawsuit be filed, it would bring
in several new plaintiffs, including the WPC, Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility, Natural Resources Defense
Council and others. In addition, it will involve some new
concerns brought to the publics attention through the Freedom
of Information Act documents.”
The 92,500-acre Baca NWR is next door to the Great Sand Dunes
National Park. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre
de Cristo Range, the refuge protects the Unconfined Aquifer
and the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest.
The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million
in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological,
educational and recreational values.” Although normally
included in Refuge protection, the Baca mineral interests
were not secured in the purchase agreement.
Back to Archives
to the Eagle!