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Court asked to block Baca NWR drilling

Posted: Thursday, Dec 4th, 2008

Photo courtesy Lexam Corp. A Lexam Exploration site in the San Luis Valley.

Injunction motion filed Thursday


CRESTONE — Two environmental groups asked a federal court on Thursday to block a Canadian firm from exploratory gas drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The groups want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do a more thorough environmental analysis before allowing Toronto-based Lexam Energy Exploration to drill two 14,000-foot exploratory gas wells on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition filed a motion Thursday in federal court in Denver seeking a preliminary injunction enjoining any “ground disturbing activities” on the refuge.

Regional Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Sharon Rose said agency officials hadn’t seen the motion.

Lexam did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.

The challenge comes in response to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release in late October of a Final Environmental Assessment for the planned gas and oil exploration on the refuge. The Service at that time announced a determination of no significant impact of exploratory oil/gas drilling on the refuge. The service conducted an environmental assessment but determined a more intensive environmental impact statement was not necessary at that point.

Environmental groups at that time said they would likely take the matter back to court.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed 63 terms and conditions on Lexam and stated that if Lexam wanted to pursue its drilling beyond exploration, further environmental analysis would be required. “The Service seeks to protect refuge resources while honoring Lexam’s vested rights to explore the mineral estate they own,” the federal agency stated in announcing its October decision. “Under the Preferred Alternative, the USFWS would adopt protective standards and measures to ensure that Lexam’s planned exploratory drilling project does not unreasonably degrade or impact environmental resources.”

Although the surface land is public, Lexam owns some of the minerals. Federal officials said the company acquired the minerals before the area was designated a refuge in 2004, and the law gave the mineral owner or lessee the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.

Baca National Wildlife Refuge was created in 2004 with the acquisition of the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. Some 31,000 acres of that ranch became part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, expanded from a national monument, and the rest became the wildlife refuge.

SLVEC and WPC spokesmen said they believe that drilling for oil and gas will irreparably impact and destroy the pristine character of the refuge.

“This pristine land is a magnificent refuge for the protection of our nation’s wildlife and wetlands and should not be transformed into Colorado’s next oil and gas industrialized zone and sacrifice area,” said Christine Canaly, the ecosystem council’s executive director. “We are standing up to them.”

She said it was ironic that although the public is not allowed on this property because a management plan for the refuge is not yet in place, the oil and gas industry seem to be welcomed with open arms. “It defies logic that the USFWS could find that there would be no significant impacts from this development,” she said.

Canaly added that oil and gas development would affect the entire local character of the region.

Travis Stills, an attorney for the environmental groups, said he doesn’t believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is exercising the considerable authority it has to ensure the refuge is protected. “We’re obviously disappointed that the USFWS refused to negotiate and delay drilling on the refuge so that the parties could brief the merits,” he added. “The only option left is to press this matter in court. That said, we always remain hopefully that the agency will consider a settlement of this matter.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said additional analysis of the drilling’s potential effect on the Gunnison’s prairie dog didn’t change its finding that there would be no significant impacts.

Federal officials said the Gunnison’s prairie dog, found at higher elevations in Colorado and New Mexico, qualified for protection as an endangered species.

The Baca refuge is home to several colonies of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. The only colony within the planned exploration area is about three miles from the nearest well site, Fish and Wildlife spokespersons said.

Federal officials said they would monitor the situation to see if emergency measures are needed to protect the prairie dogs.

Gunnison’s prairie dogs are not the only endangered species according to the water protection coalition. “Drilling will have an irreparable impact on a genetically unique population of the Rio Grande sucker (Catostomus plebeius),” said Ceal Smith, Director of the San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition and a biologist. “If Lexam is allowed to proceed, the cost could be no less than extinction of a species,” said Smith. The Rio Grande sucker is a state endangered fish discovered on the Baca NWR 3 years ago.

“Additionally there have been no surveys, biological assessments or studies conducted to identify the absence or presence of sensitive species and their habitats in the areas proposed for drilling. The agency is literally flying in the dark,” said Smith.

Associated Press Writer Judith Kohler contributed to this report.

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