Monday, July 25, 2011

San Juan Citizens Alliance vs. Stiles (USDA & DOI)

Jul 21: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, Case No. 10-1259. Appealed from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. The appeal concerns the Northern San Juan Basin Coal Bed Methane project (the Project), which has been approved by the United States Forest Service (the Forest Service) and the Bureau of Land Management (the BLM). The Project contemplates the construction of numerous gas wells within the San Juan National Forest (the Forest) and on other federal lands. San Juan Citizens Alliance and four other environmental advocacy groups (collectively, SJCA) filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado against the Forest Service, the BLM, and four government officials (collectively, the Federal Defendants) for alleged violations of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
    The suit contends that the 2007 record of decision (ROD) approving the Project was unlawful. Several companies holding valid leases in the area and interested in drilling for gas (the Lessees) were permitted to intervene as additional defendants. The district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants. SJCA argues on appeal that the Project violates the NFMA because it is inconsistent with provisions of the San Juan National Forest Plan (the Forest Plan) protecting old-growth ponderosa pine forests, wildlife habitat, and riparian areas, and that the ROD approved individual wells under the Project that violate the Forest Plan's standards and guidelines protecting riparian areas.
    It further argues that the Federal Defendants violated NEPA in two respects when they prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) assessing the Project's environmental consequences: (1) the EIS did not adequately analyze the Project's
effects on the Forest's riparian areas, offering only perfunctory references to mitigation measures without evaluating how those measures could correct Forest Plan violations; and (2) the Federal Defendants did not include several nearby national parks and wilderness areas in its cumulative-impact analysis of the Project's effects on air quality and visibility.
    The Appeals Court affirmed in part and remanded in part saying the ripeness doctrine precludes us from addressing the merits of any of SJCA's challenges to the Project under the NFMA. A claim that the Project is inconsistent with the Forest Plan is not ripe until that inconsistency leads to the improper approval of a specific well (or associated construction). . . Because SJCA's NFMA claims that the Project is inconsistent with the Forest Plan are not ripe, we remand to the district court to vacate its judgment on those claims and to dismiss them without prejudice.
    The Appeals Court also ruled, "As for SJCA's NEPA claims, we reject them on the merits. First, the EIS's discussion of riparian-area mitigation measures is more than adequate to satisfy NEPA. An EIS assessing environmental consequences at the programmatic stage of a multi-step development project can properly discuss mitigation measures in general terms when the specifics of possible well locations are still uncertain, leaving for later a more complete analysis of environmental consequences associated with permitting a particular well site. Second, the Federal Defendants' decision on which public lands to include in the cumulative-impact analysis of air quality was a reasonable choice involving technical and scientific matters within their areas of expertise."
    Access the complete opinion (click here). [#Energy/NatGas, #Land, #CA10]

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