Judge upholds state review of gas wells that wildlife groups claim ignored sage grouse impact

2011-07-15T17:03:00Z 2011-07-15T20:25:31Z Judge upholds state review of gas wells that wildlife groups claim ignored sage grouse impact

By MIKE DENNISON

Gazette State Bureau

The Billings Gazette

HELENA — A state district judge has upheld Montana’s environmental review of 23 natural gas wells in Eastern Montana, rejecting a claim by wildlife groups that the review didn’t properly consider the wells’ impact on rare sage grouse.

District Judge Joe Hegel of Miles City ruled this week that the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, which permitted the wells in Fallon County, had taken a “sufficiently hard look at the environmental effect of the proposed wells” and didn’t need to go further.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wildlife Federation sued the state and the drilling company three years ago, arguing that the board’s review didn’t consider the “cumulative effect of continued oil and gas development” on the sage grouse.

The two wildlife groups said the state board should be required to conduct a more extensive environmental impact statement before issuing the permits.

Tom Richmond, administrator of the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, said the decision “validates our permitting process” and creates more certainty for companies that want to explore for oil and gas in Montana on state and private lands.

“When people come to drill wells ... they have some certainty that unless what they’re proposing is unusual, they’ll get a permit when the analysis is complete,” he said.

Joe Icenogle, director of environmental affairs for Fidelity Exploration and Production Co., agreed, saying Friday that the decision “confirms that the Montana Board of Oil and Gas and its permitting practices are fully within the Montana Environmental Policy Act.”

Fidelity, which operates hundreds of wells in Eastern Montana and Wyoming, has the permits for the 23 wells. A dozen of them have been drilled and are already operating.

National Wildlife Federation officials could not be reached Friday about whether they’re considering an appeal of Hegel’s ruling.

The two wildlife groups sued the state in 2008, after the board issued permits to Fidelity to drill the 23 wells, which are in the Cedar Creek Anticline near Baker. The wells were proposed in an existing oil-and-gas field.

A board official prepared an environmental analysis of the wells based on a checklist from a “programmatic” environmental impact study developed 20 years ago, that examined the overall program of oil-and-gas wells in the area.

The analysis didn’t specifically refer to breeding grounds of sage grouse, which have been considered as a possible endangered species, but did conclude that no “sensitive habitat” for threatened species was near the wells, the court said.

The lawsuit said that using the checklist didn’t properly consider the cumulative effects of the drilling on sage grouse habitat and breeding grounds.

However, Hegel said the board “reasonably determined” that drilling wells in a pre-existing gas field where infrastructure already exists is a “routine action with limited environmental impact.”

“Nothing in this case indicates that (the board) abused their discretion in applying the lower level of scrutiny to these routine applications,” he wrote.

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