Court rules in favor of energy development

RBC I The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Department of the Interior adhered to federal law in its decision to vastly expand energy development on wildlife-rich public lands located on southwestern Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) announced Nov. 21.
The TRCP suit, filed in 2008, contended that the Bureau of Land Management failed to implement “adaptive environmental management” and mitigation activities as committed to in decision documents for the Pinedale Anticline natural gas project, which comprises crucial winter range for one of the state’s largest mule deer populations and prime sage grouse habitat in the Upper Green River Basin. Mule deer numbers have declined by more than half in the project area in the decade since development began.
The court ruled that the BLM properly considered a reasonable range of alternatives in the 2008 record of decision, or ROD, for the project, even though it did not consider an alternative that would restore wildlife to levels consistent with the initial ROD, released in 2000.The court further found BLM’s prior commitments could not be enforced because the new 2008 ROD superseded those commitments and BLM was entitled to a presumption that it would implement the 2008 ROD to ensure against unnecessary and undue degradation.
“Essentially, federal law allows the Bureau of Land Management to permit expanded energy development even in the face of declining wildlife populations. If this is the law, the law needs to be changed,” said TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh. “Mule deer populations in the area have declined precipitously since development began in 2000 and since the 2008 ROD. No one disputes this fact. These losses are unacceptable to sportsmen and should outrage anyone who cares about the conscientious administration of fish, wildlife and public lands.”
In its ruling, the court also found that the agency fully considered the impact of the project on hunting in the region and that the mitigation measures adopted by BLM on balance would comply with BLM’s duties under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The TRCP maintains that BLM decisions regarding development in the anticline consistently ignore current science about the impacts of natural gas projects on mule deer and a host of other species important to sportsmen.
“As defined by the court, the bottom line in the Pinedale Anticline natural gas project is that the federal government has the discretion to take whatever action it deems appropriate, even at the expense of responsible fish and wildlife management, the interests of citizens, including hunters and anglers, and in conflict with the multiple-use approach the BLM is legally bound to uphold,” said Dr. Rollin Sparrowe, TRCP board member and past leader of the Pinedale Anticline Working Group Wildlife Task Group. “This is unacceptable.”
“If the BLM can oversee oil and gas development on our public lands with little or no regard to fish and wildlife populations,” continued Sparrowe, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who lives near the project site, “then the public needs stronger laws or regulations to protect our valuable and shared natural resources. The TRCP remains committed to ensuring that responsive policy measures addressing these deficiencies are enacted.
“The mule deer population on the Pinedale Anticline is the most intensively studied herd in the American West being affected by unusually intensive gas development,” Sparrowe stated. “Ten years of research and monitoring indicate a negative downward trend and an overall decline of close to 60 percent — a number that was confirmed before the documented die-offs from last year’s severe winter. Losses are expected to increase even further this year. Data also show that surrounding mule deer herds not affected as much by gas drilling all are in better condition. Further declines will occur as the rest of the drilling moves into new, important habitats. The unique negative influence on this Mesa Herd is winter drilling, which proves without a doubt that such drilling is incompatible with sustaining a wintering deer herd.”
“The TRCP is in favor of sustainable energy development on public lands, but the project on the Pinedale Anticline clearly is degrading wildlife and hunting opportunities,” concluded Fosburgh. “The real tragedy in Pinedale is that energy development could have been accomplished without these huge losses in mule deer and other wildlife — but the BLM and the drillers insisted on a pace of development that turned our public lands into an industrial zone and hammered a once-iconic mule deer herd, likely past the point of recovery. American citizens, whether or not they ever will hunt in southwestern Wyoming, must live with the disastrous results of the Pinedale debacle for generations to come.”
The TRCP supports responsible public-lands energy development that is pursued in accordance with federal law and ensures citizens’ continued ability to access our lands and natural resources.