The Crestone Eagle, November 2008:

USFW finds ‘no significant impact’ of drilling on Baca Refuge
Lexam given green light?

by Ceal Smith

On Wednesday, October 22, 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a Final Environmental Assessment for the Planned Gas and Oil Exploration on Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Saguache County, Colorado (Final EA) authorizing the Canadian firm Lexam Explorations (U.S.A.) Inc. to drill two exploratory “gas” wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.

“The Bush administration’s decision to authorize gas exploration on the Baca refuge just two weeks before the election and while the administration itself is in its final months in office is very disappointing, but not surprising.” said Christine Canaly, San Luis Valley Ecosystem (SLVEC) Director.

An environmental analysis was conducted by the USFWS in response to a lawsuit filed by SLVEC against USFWS. In November of 2007, Colorado Federal District Court Judge Walker D. Miller ruled that the USFWS “shall prohibit all ground disturbing activities related to the exploration and development of the mineral estate underlying the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.” During litigation, the agency agreed to comply with NEPA and conduct an environmental analysis. SLVEC’s lawsuit is still pending.

“While the agency’s Final EA includes conditions and protective measures on Lexam’s drilling operation that were not in the draft assessment,” said Canaly, “we still have many concerns about the scope and sufficiency of the agency’s analysis. The agency appears to have ignored public concerns about wetlands, noise, cumulative impacts, and purchase (and retirement) of the mineral interests lying beneath the public lands complex.”

Newly released emails, memos and other official records show lawyers in the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of the Solicitor allowed industry lobbyists and Lexam attorneys to improperly influence the EA. The records were obtained as a result of the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition (WPC) in July.

“Much like the recent Mineral Management Services situation, it appears that Lexam may have been provided unfettered access to the agency’s decision making process.” said Brad Bartlett, attorney with the Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, Colorado who is representing SLVEC and the WPC. “The revisions by Lexam’s attorney and industry-friendly Bush officials may have significantly misrepresented the likely impacts of drilling in the Baca NWR”, Bartlett added.

The Federal Court recently ordered USFWS to release the remaining documents being requested by the WPC in a timely manner. These documents are expected to reveal more specifically how Lexam’s attorney and other third parties influenced the analysis and final decision documents.

In Denver, employees of the Mineral Management Service’s Royalty In Kind program were found to have accepted favors from industry officials in exchange for preferential treatment of industry contracts. Although headlines focused on the scandalous activities in the Interior Department’s Denver offices, the MMS scandal also involves questionable practices in the selection and use of industry contractors. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is managed under the Dept. of the Interior.

The FWS received more than 48,000 letters criticizing the draft study and demanding that the agency do a better job of assessing the potential impacts of drilling. The National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation were among many who sharply criticized the study earlier this year.

SLVEC, WPC and many others are asking USFWS to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Lexam’s drilling proposal. An EIS requires a more comprehensive examination of likely impacts than an Environmental Assessment.

As yet, there is no Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan in place for the Baca NWR and one is not scheduled until 2010. Until such a plan is in place, the surface owners – the American public – are not allowed on the refuge. The Final EA authorizes Lexam to access and develop wells on the refuge before the public gets to experience it in its current pristine condition.

For the time being, USFWS has agreed to maintain the prohibition on “ground-disturbing activities” issued by the Federal Court in November 2007. Talks are ongoing to extend this agreement into next year.

According to a WPC spokesperson, “We are likely headed back to Court. Should a new lawsuit be filed, it would bring in several new plaintiffs, including the WPC, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Natural Resources Defense Council and others. In addition, it will involve some new concerns brought to the publics attention through the Freedom of Information Act documents.”

The 92,500-acre Baca NWR is next door to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range, the refuge protects the Unconfined Aquifer and the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” Although normally included in Refuge protection, the Baca mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement.