DENVER - It took nine years, but a federal judge has ruled in favor of BP and the Southern Ute tribe in a lawsuit over coal-bed methane development on the reservation.
Two local groups, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Southern Ute Grassroots Organization, sued the federal government on Feb. 18, 2000. Nine years and 12 days later, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn ruled for the defendants. BP and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe joined the case as defendants.
It was the first of three major challenges to federal Environmental Impact Statements on gas drilling in the San Juan Basin. Environmental groups also challenged the EIS for northwest New Mexico, a lawsuit they lost. Last year, San Juan Citizens Alliance and others sued the Forest Service over its Northern San Juan Basin EIS, which allows for gas wells in the HD Mountains roadless area. The last case is still in progress.
"We're pleased with the decision. It shows the EIS was thorough and complete, as affirmed by the court," said BP spokesman Curtis Thomas.
BP's attorneys have already seized on the decision in the 2000 case as ammunition in the HDs lawsuit, asking the judge to take notice because it involves some of the same plaintiffs and issues.
The case was argued through written briefs, not at a trial. The last briefs were filed in December 2005. Several judges had the case at different times, and it faced a long delay because the last judge, Phillip Figa, became ill and died.
The new judge, Robert Blackburn, finally ruled March 30 that the EIS was "a sufficiently reasonable, good faith presentation of the broader impacts of oil and gas development throughout the Basin."
Many observers on both sides had all but forgotten the case.
"It's obviously anticlimactic for us, having waited so long on this decision, but it's also not at the forefront of a lot of people's minds," said Geoff Hickcox, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who handled the case.
Hickcox doesn't know if the plaintiffs will appeal, but he's not sure how much good it would do because so much time has elapsed.
Indeed, the battle over drilling on the Southern Ute reservation is largely over. Production in La Plata County hit a peak in 2003 and has been on the decline ever since, although companies expect to be extracting gas for another 20 years or more.
La Plata County now has 3,080 active gas wells - an increase of more than 600 from when the lawsuit was filed. Most of the wells are within the borders of the reservation.
The lawsuit challenged the use of hydraulic fracturing, which has become a common way to extract gas from coal seams since the suit was filed.
One of the plaintiffs' arguments was that the government didn't analyze in detail the effect of 80-acre spacing of wells. The study didn't look at 80-acre spacing because "it is not practical or expected," according to the EIS.
Even though 80-acre spacing was introduced in La Plata County in 2005, Blackburn said the plaintiffs didn't prove the government acted in bad faith when it prepared its environmental analysis.
"Ours was sort of the opening salvo to try to get them to do this basin-wide EIS, and we didn't get much traction," Hickcox said.
The HDs lawsuit goes into more detail on the alleged effects of drilling on air pollution and old-growth forests. Lawyers on both sides are filing written briefs in that case this spring.