Oil & gas oversight case clears hurdle

A potential landmark climate and energy lawsuit overcame an early challenge last week. A federal judge rejected the Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to dismiss the suit, which seeks improved oversight of the climate change impacts of oil and gas development.

Specifically, the lawsuit seeks to compel BLM to require oil and gas companies to use cost-effective, proven technologies and practices that keep methane – a potent greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide – out of the atmosphere and in the pipelines. The suit was filed a year ago by a coalition of conservation groups, with Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance among them.

“Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is bringing much-needed reform to the BLM’s leasing program,” said Mike Eisenfeld, SJCA’s New Mexico coordinator. “However, leasing reform must account for climate pollution caused by federally authorized oil and gas development to protect our shared climate. Our lands, rivers, streams, farms and communities are at risk.”

Eisenfeld noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has established oil and gas operations as the largest human-made source of methane. However, he added that the EPA has also created the “Natural Gas STAR” program and identified more than 120 technologies and practices that effectively reduce methane waste and make operations more efficient. In 2008, the agency estimated that this program eliminated the greenhouse gas equivalent of 8.5 million passenger vehicles or 6 million homes. In addition, it increased natural gas sales by nearly $802 million. Despite these economic and environmental incentives, the BLM allows operators to skirt the EPA program.

“We look at this as a potential win-win for the natural gas industry and public lands agencies to improve public health conditions and get more production through the use of better technologies,” Eisenfeld said

Diminishing air quality in the Four Corners provided part of the inspiration for the suit. BLM lands in northwestern New Mexico are home to more than 18,000 oil and gas wells and make up the second-largest producing natural gas field in the United States.

“We’ve got unregulated compressors, wellheads and central drilling points all over the basin,” Eisenfeld said. “We’re seeking action from our public lands agencies rather than just watching as they put their heads in the sand.”

Now that the court has rejected the agency’s push to dismiss the suit, the groups and citizens may see that action.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the groups’ attorney, noted, “We look forward to presenting our case that BLM’s leasing decisions have ignored and rejected common-sense climate and energy solutions.”  


Legislators take on public land abuse

Colorado legislators are taking a hard line against damage to public lands. Last week, Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. John Salazar introduced federal legislation to clamp down on illegal and reckless activities on public lands.

Public lands recreation has exploded throughout the West, and especially in Colorado. Along with increased visitation, there has been an accompanying rise in damage caused by careless or reckless uses. However, agencies have had their hands tied when it comes to off highway vehicle abuse, vandalism, arson and other misuses of public lands. For example, federal law prevents the BLM from assessing a fine greater than $1,000 – even if the damage from violations costs thousands more to repair. Udall and Salazar’s bill seeks to modernize the law, which has remained unchanged for a quarter of a century. It would increase fines and penalties to as much as $100,000 and 12 months in jail for violations.  

“The public shouldn’t have to pay for damage caused by a few careless visitors,” Udall said. “Increasing the penalties for people who knowingly or recklessly damage public lands would help restore dam

age and just as importantly, prevent harm in the first place.”

A local incident provided some of the inspiration for Udall and Salazar’s bill. In the summer of 2000, two off-road vehicles ignored closure signs while four-wheel driving on BLM land high above Silverton. The drivers eventually got stuck for five days on a 70 percent slope at 12,500 feet along the flanks of Houghton Mountain. The incident caused significant damage to the high alpine tundra, and yet the violators were fined only $600 apiece.


Renner to leave Environmental Center

Fort Lewis College is losing its conservation coordinator. Marcus Renner will step down as director of the Environmental Center at the end of this school year.

The Environmental Center is a student-funded program with the mission of strengthening students’ commitment to a socially and ecologically-responsible world. Students manage a demonstration organic garden and greenhouse, run the campus composting program, conduct energy audits, work with local high schools, publish an online magazine, produce a radio show, and plan events. Renner served as the coordinator for the past four years but is leaving to pursue a career in creative writing.

“While I am excited to open up this next chapter of my life, my appreciation of this community, Fort Lewis, its students, and the center continues to grow each day. Working at the center has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Renner wrote when he announced his plans this week.

In addition to serving at the EC, Renner helped spearhead Local First, an effort to promote locally owned, independent businesses.


Schools launch student-parent portal

Durango parents can now take a deeper look into the classroom. School District 9-R recently launched ParentConnectxp, an internet-based, home-to-school program that enables middle and high school parents to view their students’ academic progress.

Each secondary student has been provided with an account, allowing the student and their parent to securely view class assignments, attendance records, view and print grades, send e-mail to teachers, and receive alerts on a daily basis.

“ParentConnectxp will be a very effective tool,” says Mike Hoyt, Student Information Director for 9-R. “We think having this sort of information easily available for students and their families will help the students stay current on their assignments and improve communications within the family about academic progress.”

Middle and high school students and their parents can access the portal at www.durangoschools.org .

– Will Sands




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