U.S. Water News Online
BILLINGS, Mont. -- An appeals court panel has granted a
request by the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe and a conservation
group to halt new coal-bed methane development in Montana's portion
of the Powder River Basin pending their appeal in an ongoing dispute
over drilling in the region.
The decision, by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,
temporarily prevents the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from
approving coal-bed methane projects in the basin in Montana and keeps
Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. from drilling additional
wells in one of its projects and building related infrastructure.
John Arum, an attorney for the tribe, said he was pleased and
viewed the ruling as a positive sign.
A spokesman for Fidelity said that attorneys for the firm were
reviewing the order. Greg Albright, a BLM spokesman, said the order
ties officials' hands.
"It's somewhat disappointing, because we felt Judge Anderson's
ruling was fairly well reasoned and dealt with the issue of phased
development," Albright said.
In April, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Anderson decided BLM could
allow limited coal-bed methane drilling on federal leases in a
portion of southern Montana while the agency worked on an
environmental study looking at phased development. His decision was
similar to a plan proposed by BLM and followed one he made in
February that said a 2003 study was inadequate because it failed to
look at a staged development alternative.
Anderson's decision allowing limited development was a blow to the
tribe and Northern Plains Resource Council, which wanted new drilling
on federal leases stopped until the supplemental study was done. The
tribe and conservation group sought an emergency injunction, pending
their appeal of Anderson's ruling.
The dispute dates to 2003, when Northern Plains and the tribe
sued. They argued, among other things, that BLM didn't consider
alternatives to full-field development or take a hard look at the
possible effects on such things as air quality and water.
Drilling for coal-bed methane involves the release of groundwater
to ease the pressure holding the natural gas in coal seams. Some
conservationists and ranchers say the water can be salty and damage
crops. Concerns also have been raised about the potential draw down
of aquifers and landowners' water wells.
Northern Plains said the temporary stay will allow existing
projects to continue but keep BLM from approving new projects until
the appeal is decided.
"There really wasn't any incentive for the BLM to go forward and
look at phased development very quickly," said Mark Fix, a Northern
Plains member. "Hopefully, they'll move forward now and look at it."
William Walks Along, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribal
council, said he was celebrating the injunction "and the fact that
somebody's listening to the tribe."
The appeals court panel also granted a request for expedited
briefing and arguments.
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