DENVER (AP) – A judge is considering whether the federal government followed environmental regulations when deciding to allow drilling for natural gas on Colorado’s Roan Plateau.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger heard arguments Tuesday in Denver in a lawsuit that dates back to 2008. She said she would rule as soon as possible.

Lawyers argued for about two hours over whether the Bureau of Land Management considered alternative sites and methods, and if it adequately assessed environmental impacts of a plan that projects up to 1,570 wells on the plateau on more than 73,000 acres of federal and private land.

Environmental lawyers said the BLM did not sufficiently consider an alternative that would involve directional drilling and would avoid drilling at the top of the plateau, considered environmentally sensitive.

The BLM plan calls for 210 wells on top of the plateau and 1,360 wells at the bottom.

The BLM argued that it considered directional drilling in its initial plans, but like other alternatives deemed it infeasible.

Lawyer Ayako Sato, who argued on behalf of the BLM, said the technology needed to conduct directional drilling was not advanced enough to access the reserve, and that access issues were involved because the area was surrounded by private land.

Sato also indicated the alternative considered by the BLM did not present a cohesive plan that the BLM could address or review.

Environmental lawyers are challenging a number of issues, including the 20-year environmental assessment they deemed insufficient; why the BLM did not measure air pollution outside the planning area; and evidence related to what the BLM did to determine emission levels of pollutants that affect the ozone.

The lawyers do not believe 20 years is a sufficient amount of time to conduct the review because they say documents indicate the project is planned to go longer. The BLM did not address how much longer the project might last, but plans indicate the wells would be developed over a 20-year period.

The BLM acknowledged it has a “dismal record” of providing environmental assessments beyond 20 years, and that its own policy, partially based on a handbook from 1990, requires the agency to project environmental impact reviews for 15 to 20 years.

Judge Krieger said she would not rule on the merits of the plan but instead determine if the agency followed protocol required when making decisions on the proposed plan.

The BLM auctioned leases on the land in 2008, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was a senator representing Colorado. He was critical of the plan then but is now a defendant in the case.

– By Rema Rahman, AP Writer

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