By Ceal Smith
Denver – A Federal District Court Judge heard arguments on May 20th on whether to issue a preliminary injunction on a proposal to drill two 14,000’ deep oil and gas wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the northern San Luis Valley, CO.
The Plaintiffs, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition, asked Senior Judge Miller to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the US Fish and Wildlife Service to bar intervener Toronto-based Lexam Explorations from drilling until Judge Miller decides the outcome of the underlying lawsuit.
The groups are questioning the FWS approval of Lexam’s
proposal to drill in the Refuge without fully analyzing the impacts on the Valley’s water resources, local communities and endangered wildlife.
More than six hours of argument and testimony were presented to Judge Miller.  Five Crestone residents testified about the likely impacts of the drilling and associated activities, including contamination of aquifers, negative impacts on real estate markets, degradation of wildlife habitat, the potential extinction of the genetically unique Crestone Creek Rio Grande sucker fish and damage to the unique quietude, sense of place and socioeconomic values of the San Luis Valley.  The FWS did not present any witnesses and Lexam relied entirely on the testimony of a mining contractor to address the impacts of Lexam’s oil and gas proposal.
Judge Miller said he will attempt to issue his decision on the preliminary injunction request before August 1, 2009, the date when a current agreement to halt construction expires.
Toronto-based Lexam Explorations Inc. purchased 75% of the oil and gas interests before the Baca National Wildlife Refuge was designated in 2000.  According agency documents, if exploration shows there are sufficient quantities of oil or gas to produce commercially, the wells will be shut in and additional environmental analysis will be conducted before Lexam can use the wells for production.  If the exploration leads to production, it would be the first time oil or gas has been produced on a commercial scale in the San Luis Valley.
Travis Stills, attorney with the Energy Minerals Law Center who represents the local groups in this litigation, said that if drilled, the 14,000 feet deep wells through the aquifer, “will remain permanently as a continuing threat to the water.”
Chris Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council said, “the unique character of the San Luis Valley and the confined aquifer are well known to those who know and love the area.  We hope that in addition to addressing the legal questions involved, the hearing conveyed a sense of the unique place we have worked so hard to protect.”