In what's being hailed as a major victory for community groups fighting fracking projects, a Denver federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can no longer keep secret the identity of companies seeking to obtain oil and gas leases on public lands. The landmark ruling reverses decades of government policy and has a direct bearing on the much-watched and contentious battle over 30,000 acres of proposed leases in Colorado's scenic North Fork Valley.
U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard Matsch issued the decision on Wednesday in a lawsuit against the BLM brought by Citizens for a Healthy Community and the Western Environmental Law Center. The groups were appealing the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for the names of entities that had submitted what's known as an "expression of interest" in potential oil and gas leases in the North Fork Valley, essentially nominating those parcels for inclusion in a BLM lease sale.
Although the auctioning of the parcels is a public process, the BLM has refused to disclose the identities of parties nominating lands for leases, claiming that disclosure would damage the business interests of companies involved in the highly competitive energy industry. But Matsch decided that hush-hush procedure "runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process" and ordered BLM to fork over the names.
Among other considerations, he wrote, the identity of the company submitting an expression of interest "may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale."
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WELC attorney Kyle Tisdel called the ruling "a clear rebuke of BLM"s policy to protect industry at the expense of the public and its ability to fully engage the agency's decision-making process."
The proposed North Fork leases have been widely protested by environmentalists, ranchers, tourism interests, and representatives of the Paonia area's organic farms and wineries. The BLM has twice announced plans to put the leases up for sale, then deferred those sales, along with other controversial leases near Mesa Verde National Park and Dinosaur National Monument.
The latest decision to table drilling in the North Fork Valley came last week, just days before a February 13 auction of parcels in Lakewood -- the same day Matsch signed his ruling.
More from our Environment archive: "Fracking the North Fork: Protests pour in over BLM lease plan."