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The Power of Public Participation: Oil and Gas Exploration in the North Fork Valley

In late 2011, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced its intention to lease approximately 30,000 acres of public and private lands in Colorado’s North Fork Valley for oil and gas development.

Local residents immediately raised concerns about the proposal’s possible impacts on the area’s economy, which depends largely on orchards, vineyards, meat production, and tourism.

Residents were also concerned about the geology of BLM’s proposed oil and gas leases. “Those parcels are on geologically unstable land and right under avalanche chutes,” said Peter Kolbenschlag, a Paonia resident who filed a statement with the BLM opposing the leasing plan.

There were other problems, too. The BLM’s resource-management plan, the basic planning document for the valley, hadn’t been revised in 22 years. “Any oil and gas leasing should wait for a revised resource-management plan,” said Dan Feldman, a board member of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a local group that was created to deal with risks of drilling. 

A wide range of stakeholders, including farmers, conservationists, wineries, ranchers, chambers of commerce, and local and state politicians rallied together to oppose the poorly conceived plan. A town meeting in Hotchkiss, Colorado to organize local concerns drew a crowd of 350 people. Several weeks later, a meeting in the nearby town of Paonia was attended by almost 500.

Public response – and the demand for technical information – to the proposed oil and gas lease was so great that Bureau of Land Management’s public-comment deadline on the agency’s Environmental Assessment (EA) was extended an additional month to February of 2012. 

In written comments submitted to BLM, Western Environmental Law Center concluded that, “given the proximity of these parcels to the communities of Paonia, Hotchkiss, Crawford and Somerset, the critical water resources serving those communities, as well as the Paonia Reservoir and the North Fork of the Gunnison River, BLM’s…chosen path of opening this area up to oil and gas development will threaten the North Fork Valley’s very foundation and further engender public contempt for the manner in which BLM has chosen to manage our public lands.”

Five months later, the Bureau of Land Management cancelled the proposed lease amid the outpour of public comments.

The outpour of public opposition that made this victory possible would not have been possible, however, without the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed into law in 1970, NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposals, solicit the input of all affected stakeholders, and disclose their findings publicly before undertaking projects that may significantly affect the environment.

Public participation in the NEPA process serves two functions. First, individual citizens and communities affected by proposed action can be a valuable source of information and ideas. Second, allowing citizens to communicate and engage with federal decision-makers serves fundamental principles of democratic governance.

While NEPA is often called an environmental impact law, it is far more than that. As the BLM’s decision to remove the North Fork Valley from oil and gas exploration demonstrates, NEPA is a critical tool for civic engagement. It empowers local communities to hold the government and corporations accountable. Because of NEPA, federal agencies are no longer allowed to say “we know best” and make decisions without public accountability.

 

[1] “Environmental Assessment: August 2012 Oil and Gas Lease Sale.” Bureau of Land Management, Uncompahgre Field Office. March 2012. Available at: https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/nepa/28352/34656/36062/default.jsp?projectName=DOI-BLM-CO-S050-2012-0001-EA&projectDisplayName=DOI-BLM-CO-S050-2012-0001-EA+%28August+2012+Oil+and+Lease+Sale+%29

[2] “Oil-and-gas lease proposal upsets residents in North Fork Valley.” The Denver Post. January 5, 2012. Available at:
https://www.denverpost.com/2012/01/05/oil-and-gas-lease-proposal-upsets-residents-in-north-fork-valley/

[3] “Comments Regarding August 2012 Oil and Gas Lease Sale.” Western Environmental Law Center. February 8, 2012. Available at:
https://westernlaw.org/sites/default/files/Comments%20To%20BLM%20on%20North%20Fork%20Valley%20Lease%20Sale%202.8.2012.pdf

[4] “Scoping Comments on August 2012 Oil and Gas Lease Sale—Proposed North Fork Parcels.” Citizens for a Healthy Community. February 6, 2012. Available at:
http://citizensforahealthycommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/flpma.scoping.pdf

[5] “BLM halts oil and gas leasing plan for Colorado’s North Fork Valley.” The Denver Post. May 2, 2012. Available at:
https://www.denverpost.com/2012/05/02/blm-halts-oil-and-gas-leasing-plan-for-colorados-north-fork-valley/

 

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