The Bush administration's rush to develop hundreds of thousands of coalbed methane wells in five Western states hit a roadblock Oct. 15.


Two judges on the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals ruled that the federal Bureau of Land Management has illegally leased methane rights without evaluating impacts. The BLM's method of granting leases based on outdated "resource management plans" - plans drawn up in the 1980s that don't even mention coalbed methane - threatens to "eviscerate" basic environmental laws, wrote Judge James Burski.


The ruling only applied to three leases in Wyoming's portion of the Powder River Basin, and the BLM and industry groups say that's all it will affect. But conservation groups say it means many more leases are illegal: The same outdated BLM plans have been used to grant methane leases under vast stretches of private land as well as federal land elsewhere in Wyoming, and in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Montana.


"It could have a significant ripple effect," says Tom Darin, staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, one of the groups that appealed the leases.


The Powder River Basin already has about 12,000 methane wells, but most are under private and state lands where the Wyoming and Montana governments handle the leases (HCN, 11/5/01: Wyoming's powder keg ). The BLM plans up to 65,000 new wells, which would require the pumping of millions of acre-feet of groundwater to free the gas, as well as thousands of miles of new powerlines, pipelines and roads.