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San Juan Basin Drilling Dispute Between BLM, Environmentalists Settled After Eight Years

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Bureau of Land Management and conservation groups have settled an eight-year dispute over a management plan for nearly 10,000 natural gas wells in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico.

The groups claimed the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws in developing a 2003 management plan for drilling over 20 years in the 16,000-square-mile basin that straddles the border of New Mexico and Colorado.

A federal court ruled in favor of the agency in 2008, and the groups countered with an appeal. That appeal was dismissed Monday after both sides reached a compromise that, in part, calls for the BLM to consider impacts to cultural, wildlife and other resources when reviewing new lease sales.

The agency also plans to hold annual meetings to discuss proposed oil and gas development in the basin, consult with tribal officials from the Navajo Nation and develop an online system that the public can access for information on existing wells and lease locations as well as proposed oil and gas projects.

The BLM is also spending around $80,000 for a high-tech infrared sensor that inspectors can use to detect leaks at natural gas well sites and compressor stations in the basin. The plan is to eventually begin using the technology in the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and in Oklahoma, officials said.

"I'm really glad we're going to be doing some of this and ratcheting compliance up to the next level and seeing what's out there, what more we can be doing that's logical and technically feasible to reduce fugitive emissions and improve air quality and capture any lost royalties," BLM state director Linda Rundell said.

The BLM had been working under the 2003 resource management plan since there was no injunction on development while the lawsuit by the conservation groups was pending. About 3,800 natural gas wells have been drilled in the area since the plan's approval, said Steve Henke, manager of the BLM's Farmington office.

The New Mexico portion of the San Juan Basin encompasses one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation. It produces 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, or about 7 percent of the gas consumed daily, Henke said.

Mike Chiropolos, the lands program director for Western Resource Advocates, said the settlement has been a long time coming for a region where gas development has gone on without consideration of the cumulative impacts on air quality and the environment.

"It's all those little things that add up," he said. "By considering all the wells individually we never knew which well was going to be the straw that broke the camel's back on any one of these resources or issues."

Under the settlement, the BLM will consider several measures for limiting impacts, including directional drilling and the pairing of wells at single sites to limit the number of new roads and drill pads, regular emissions inspections and the use of cleaner burning diesel engines and solar power at well sites.

The agency will also convene a symposium on green technology to identify new equipment that would further reduce impacts by oil and gas development.

Chiropolos said the litigation was never about shutting down oil and gas operations.

"It was always about saying we can balance it, do a better job of protecting world class cultural resources, working ranches, Navajos living in the area, air, water, soil and wildlife habitat," he said.