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Federal judge denies environmental challenge to proposed Wyoming coal-bed methane project

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled against environmental groups that challenged the U.S. Interior Department's plan to open the Fortification Creek area in northeastern Wyoming to coal-bed methane development.

Judge Barbara J. Rothstein on March 28 released a 42-page ruling against the National Wildlife Federation and two Wyoming groups: the Powder River Basin Resource Council, based in Sheridan; and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, based in Lander.

The groups had sued in 2012, claiming the U.S. Bureau of Land Management improperly analyzed how opening the area to development would affect the local elk herd.

However, Rothstein ruled the BLM had analyzed properly the cumulative effects of development on the 100,000-acre Fortification Creek Planning Area. She rejected claims that the agency had failed to do an adequate job of considering the effects of development on the elk and on water and soil resources.

While Rothstein stated that the groups made numerous arguments alleging that BLM failed to take a "hard look" at the cumulative impacts of the BLM's proposal, she wrote, "Several of the plaintiffs' contentions regarding BLM's analysis of cumulative impacts on the elk herd are clearly not supported by the record."

The state of Wyoming had intervened in the lawsuit to support the federal government's drilling plans.

Renny MacKay, spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said Monday that the state is pleased with Rothstein's ruling.

"Wyoming supported the Bureau of Land Management decision because it balances protection of elk and elk habitat while facilitating natural gas production beneficial to Wyoming and its economy," MacKay said in a prepared statement. "We are pleased with this outcome."

Shannon Anderson with the Powder River Basin Resource Council said Monday the groups haven't decided whether to appeal.

"We're somewhat disappointed about the decision, and we wish BLM would have done more to protect the elk herd and the habitat out there," Anderson said. "It's a very important landscape for the Powder River Basin and very important wildlife habitat, and we believe it deserves the utmost protection from our management agencies."

Anderson said it's unclear what the court ruling will mean to possible development in the area. She said coal-bed methane drilling has been pretty much on hold in the area.

Production of coal-bed methane has declined sharply in Wyoming in recent years. Figures from the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission show production peaked in 2009 at over 580 million MCF and declined to just over 300 million MCF last year. An MCF is 1,000 cubic feet of gas.

"BLM has said that the current leases could be used not only for CBM development, but also for unconventional oil development, which is really the hot thing up there right now in the Powder River Basin," Anderson said.

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