DENVER - Legal action has resumed in a lawsuit that seeks to block coalbed methane wells in the HD Mountains east of Bayfield.
The case is likely to be fought mostly through written arguments, and environmental groups filed their first major motion in mid-December.
Meanwhile, BP has asked U.S. Senior Judge Richard Matsch to dismiss the part of the lawsuit that applies to wells it already has drilled in the area.
Much of the HDs is undeveloped and free of roads.
The lawsuit began after San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles approved coalbed methane wells in April 2007 in both the HD Mountains and near the outcrop of the coal layer that contains natural gas. Companies had bought leases to drill in the HDs years earlier.
In January 2008, the Denver office of Earthjustice sued the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management on behalf of five environmental groups, led by the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance. Five energy companies later joined the case as defendants - BP, Petrox Resources, EXOK, Elm Ridge Exploration Co. and XTO Energy.
The last public action in the case happened in August, when Matsch held a hearing to familiarize himself with the issue.
In their opening brief, attorneys for San Juan Citizens Alliance argued the Forest Service violated a number of its own rules by approving the wells. The new wells will increase ozone pollution, rip up old-growth forests and jeopardize a number of wildlife species, the environmentalists said. The brief focuses extensively on the old-growth forest and the Forest Service's goal of preserving 5 percent of the land as old-growth stands.
"The resulting impacts far exceed just the number of trees cut. The project will fragment fully 40 percent of the old growth ponderosa stands in the area," attorney Michael Freeman wrote in the brief.
The Forest Service said in a separate document that its target of maintaining 5 percent of the forested land as old growth is "a guideline, not a standard."
Forest Service attorneys say the agency followed the law when approving the wells and have asked Matsch to dismiss the lawsuit.
Despite the legal pleadings, some of the wells approved in 2007 have been drilled already. Environmental attorneys last summer considered asking Matsch to temporarily block new wells in the area, but they did not make the request.
Meanwhile, BP has drilled wells in the Sauls Creek area, and it has asked Matsch to exclude 18 of its wells from the lawsuit.
"Those wells have been drilled and completed and Plaintiff's claims are moot," BP attorney Charles Kaiser wrote.
Briefings are expected to continue through early spring. Matsch could schedule oral arguments or rule on the case based on the written briefs.
The plaintiffs aren't asking Matsch to immediately halt drilling.
"At least at this point, we're not asking him to make any immediate orders in that regard - at least until briefing is over," Freeman said in an interview.