Public denied proper meeting notice, Colo. commission 'acknowledges and admits'
Written bySCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
Two Colorado citizens groups and a northwest Colorado county have settled a lawsuit challenging the county's involvement in a closed-door meeting last spring with other elected leaders and industry representatives to discuss legal strategies for opposing an Obama administration plan to scale back the amount of public land available for oil shale research.
In the four-page settlement announced late yesterday, the Garfield County Commission "acknowledges and admits" that it did not provide proper public notice of the March 27 meeting in Vernal, Utah. Weeks after the meeting, the Garfield County and several other county commissions in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming approved nearly identical resolutions chastising a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management that would significantly downsize a 2008 George W. Bush administration plan to develop oil shale.
Garfield and the other counties sit atop the Green River Formation, which is estimated to contain more than half of the world's oil shale reserves.
The resolutions called on BLM to adopt the Bush plan -- which would have made roughly 1.9 million acres of public land in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming available for commercial oil shale development -- and abandon a proposal in a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) that proposed reducing available lands for oil shale development in the Bush plan by more than 75 percent.
Silt, Colo.-based Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA), the Western Colorado Congress and Paul Light, a Parachute, Colo., resident and member of the Western Colorado Congress, filed a lawsuit last summer in state District Court in Garfield County alleging that the closed-door meeting violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law because the public was not notified in advance of the meeting, which included a quorum of the three-member Garfield County Commission (Greenwire, Aug. 28).
The County Commission last month voted unanimously to rescind the controversial April 9 resolution chastising BLM's scaled-back oil shale proposal (EnergyWire, Sept. 7).
As part of the settlement, the county commission agreed to send a letter to BLM notifying the agency that the resolution has been rescinded and agreed that it "will not consider adopting any resolution that addresses" BLM's PEIS unless the commission "has publicly posted a Notice of its intention to do so" at least 14 days prior to the public meeting and agrees to first hear public comment on the issue.
The County Commission also agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees, which amounted to $7,500, said Denver-based attorney Steven Zansberg, who represented GVCA and the Western Colorado Congress.
"Developing plans for use of our water and land behind closed doors with oil lobbyists while shutting out the public was just plain wrong," said Leslie Robinson, GVCA's president and a 30-year resident of Rifle, Colo., in Garfield County.
"The settlement is an admission of wrongdoing by the Garfield County Commissioners, and it's a victory for open, transparent government," Robinson added. "We hope that this helps to ensure that our commissioners stop meeting in secret with lobbyists to decide public business."
County Commissioner Mike Samson said in a brief statement issued by the county that the settlement was in the best interests of the county and its taxpayers.
"As I said at the time we rescinded the resolution, I do not believe that continued litigation is in the best interest of the citizens of Garfield County," Samson said.
The settlement is undoubtedly a victory for those who questioned the ethics of the closed-door meeting that led to the formally adopted resolutions by Garfield County and other county commissions.
Uintah County, Utah, leaders who organized the closed-door meeting in March have acknowledged that their participation in the meeting amounted to a "technical" violation of Utah's open meetings laws.
Participants in the March 27 meeting included Kathleen Clarke, a former BLM director under the George W. Bush administration who is now director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, as well as Jeff Hartley, a government affairs consultant to Red Leaf Resources Inc., which has proposed building an oil shale processing plant in Utah's Uinta Basin. Others included Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association, and Roger Day, vice president of operations at American Shale Oil, according to public records released in June by Denver-based Colorado Common Cause.
But the settlement likely does not end Garfield County's interest in developing its oil shale reserves. Some officials believe the Green River Formation contains as much as 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable shale oil -- more than three times the total that will ever be produced in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
It is because of that potential that oil shale development has gained traction with some Western elected leaders despite lingering concerns about potential negative impacts to water quantity, air quality and wildlife habitat. Oil shale development requires a heavy level of processing to extract petroleum from shale rock with some government estimates calculating it could take 3 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil produced.
Meanwhile, BLM in late August approved two oil shale research and development leases on 320 acres of federal land in Rio Blanco County in northwest Colorado, clearing the way for both Houston-based Exxon Mobil Exploration Co. and Rifle-based Natural Soda Holdings Inc. to test technology that could ultimately lead to finding an economical process to extract crude oil from shale rock on a commercial scale (Greenwire, Aug. 31).