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Park County Resource Council, Inc. v. Department of Agric.

Citation: 17 ELR 20851
No. No. 85-2000, 817 F.2d 609/25 ERC 1932/(10th Cir., 04/17/1987) Aff'd

The court holds that the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) decision not to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to issuance of an oil and gas lease in national forests in the Rocky Mountain area was reasonable. The court first holds that plaintiffs' National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) challenge to BLM's approval of a drilling permit for an exploratory well is moot, since drilling and reclamation have been completed. However, plaintiffs' NEPA challenge to the validity of the lease issuance is not moot, since the lease remains in effect and more wells may be drilled. The court holds that plaintiffs' challenge to the lease issuance is not barred by the 90-day statute of limitations in the Mineral Lands Leasing Act (MLLA). The MLLA statute of limitations applies only to actions contesting the lease issuance or substantive decisions relating to the lease, not to NEPA challenges that happen to involve oil and gas leases. The court holds that plaintiffs' claim is not barred under the doctrine of laches. Noting that laches is invoked sparingly in environmental cases, the court finds that plaintiffs' two-year delay in challenging the lease issuance was not unreasonable, since its decision to wait to challenge the permit approval rather than the lease issuance was a strategic litigation decision, not a lack of vigilance or a dilatory tactic. Further, the one million dollars spent on the EIS and other measures in preparation for drilling did not constitute sufficient prejudice to warrant imposition of laches. The court holds that plaintiffs' challenge to the lease issuance is not barred for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Plaintiffs' decision not to appeal the lease issuance to the Interior Board of Land Appeals does not bar this claim, since dismissal would not avoid interruption of the administrative process, and deference to agency expertise or autonomy is inapplicable to NEPA claims.

Reaching the merits, the court holds that BLM's decision not to prepare an EIS for the lease issuance was reasonable. BLM's extensive environmental assessment took the requisite "hard look" at the impacts of oil and gas leasing and the leases contained mitigation conditions requiring further environmental appraisal prior to drilling. Moreover, requiring an EIS at the leasing stage would require highly speculative analysis and would result in a gross misallocation of resources, since development activities are eventually conducted at only about one in a hundred leases. Finally, the court holds that BLM had a rational basis to defer preparation of an EIS until a more concrete proposal is submitted.

[The district court decision is published at 15 ELR 21036.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs-Appellants
Patrick J. Marley, Marc L. Goldstein
Cole & Marley
1900 Ave. of the Stars, Los Angeles CA 90067
(213) 557-2288

Counsel for Defendants-Appellees
Ellen J. Durkee
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-3888

Counsel for Amicus Curiae
Constance E. Brooks
Mountain States Legal Foundation
1200 Lincoln St., Suite 600, Denver CO 80203
(303) 861-0244

Before McKAY, SEYMOUR and TACHA, Circuit Judges.