Conservation Groups Sue BLM to Protect Utah Wildlands From Massive Oil Exploration Project
Today the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council represented by Earthjustice sued the Bush administration to halt the largest oil and gas exploration project ever approved in Utah. The project, located south of Dinosaur National Monument in a remote area known as the Book Cliffs, would encompass over 3,000 square miles of public lands, including seven areas proposed for wilderness designation. The project also includes 5,000 explosive detonations along 457 miles of seismic lines, and would take up to two years to complete.
Just weeks after receiving a record-breaking number of public comments including highly critical comments from the EPA, the BLM found that the project would have "no significant impact on the environment," and declined to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement.
Veritas DGC Inc., of Houston would conduct the work for its clients, oil companies that it has refused to identify. Veritas is one of the largest oil exploration companies in the world with over $ 456 million in revenue in FY 2002. It has operations in 19 countries on six continents.
Steve Bloch, SUWA staff attorney, explained that, "We have never seen this extreme, single-minded approach to oil development that the BLM is taking now. With orders from Washington to make oil drilling its 'No. 1 priority,' both Utah's wildlife and magnificent redrock landscapes are being ruined forever for the chance to produce a few months of oil."
The BLM granted its approval on Friday, October 4, 2002, and immediately put the decision into "full force and effect." The agency also had pre-work meetings with Veritas that day. However, the BLM would not release its decision record to conservationists unless they made the day-long trip to the BLM's Vernal office, and then refused to release additional correspondence files, all of which are public documents.
"The BLM's actions here, including its disregard of the comments of thousands of concerned citizens and its refusal to share documents, make a mockery of Interior Secretary Norton's oft-repeated commitment to 'Consultation, Cooperation, and Communication in the service of Conservation.' Here in southern Utah, their actions speak louder than words," said Johanna Wald of NRDC.
By rushing forward, the BLM also disregarded comments by the EPA which noted that "the EA (environmental assessment) does not adequately characterize the direct and indirect effects to wildlife habitat and soils; the effects of [subsequent off-road vehicle use]; or disclose similar actions, cumulative effects and reasonably foreseeable development within or adjacent to the Project area."
The BLM also ignored over 25,000 public comments in opposition to the project.
This is the latest in a series of oil and gas development and exploration projects which have drawn fire from the public and from other federal agencies:
- In 2001, the BLM approved an oil exploration project at the doorstep of Deadhorse Point State Park, the most popular of the Utah state parks, with spectacular views of Canyonlands National Park.
- In February 2002, the BLM approved a controversial project bordering Arches National Park over the objections of the EPA, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and conservationists, all of which criticized the BLM's environmental study of the proposal. That project is now on hold pending litigation in federal court in Washington D.C.
- This summer, the BLM also approved a controversial oil exploration project in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
"This is another outrageous example of the Bush administration pushing through energy projects without considering their impacts on natural resources," said Susan Daggett, attorney for Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. "The public should have a voice in this process. Let's not sacrifice the public's interest at the alter of the Bush-Cheney energy plan."
"We are seeing a repeated and senseless pattern in which the administration is actually targeting for exploration the most fragile, important, and scenic lands," said Pam Eaton, regional director of The Wilderness Society's Four Corners States Office. "There is a place for oil and gas development activities on public lands, but it's absurd for BLM to simply ignore critical values such as wilderness and impacts to wildlife and vegetation."