SALT LAKE CITY (February 25, 2002) -- In an extraordinary decision issued late Saturday night, the Department of Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) halted a controversial project to explore for oil in Utah's famed Dome Plateau, a 23,000 acre area just north of Arches National Park that has been proposed for wilderness designation. OHA held that potential damage from seismic testing justified an immediate halt to the project. It also found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal environmental laws, as alleged by conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.
The controversial project is one of many planned in the Moab region as the Bush administration intensifies oil and gas drilling on America's pristine public lands.
Seismic testing, involving the use of 52,000 pound "thumper trucks" that roll across fragile desert soils and vegetation, had already begun in the area (also known as the Yellow Cat Swath 2D) when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Wilderness Society, and the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club filed an appeal and request for stay with the Department of Interior. They charged that BLM did not prepare a thorough environmental review and instead "fast-tracked" the project by issuing a review based on outdated information, ignoring exploration alternatives that are less damaging to the environment and omitting reports from other federal agencies that warned of potential damage.
OHA agreed with the environmental groups, stating in its order:
"It appears likely that SUWA will be able to demonstrate that BLM's FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] was arbitrary and capricious and that BLM was required to prepare an environmental impact statement approving the WesternGeco project. In addition, SUWA has raised substantial questions concerning the range of alternatives analyzed in the EA [Environmental Assessment] and the reasonableness of BLM's decision to analyze only the posed action and a no-action alternative."
SUWA was delighted with the decision. Liz Thomas of SUWA said, "We're thrilled with the ruling. BLM's shoddy environmental review reflected the interest of the oil companies and not the public. The agency's single-minded approach hurts the environment, hurts the American public and it even hurts oil companies when they are confronted with serious environmental problems posed by the permits."
The environmental group also noted that the Bush Administration's attempt to fast-track oil and gas exploration and drilling at Dome Plateau is an example of a larger campaign to open up public lands to drilling without environmental impact reviews. SUWA recently released an internal BLM memo in which the Utah BLM received explicit direction from Washington that requests by oil companies to explore and drill on public lands should be the agency's "number one priority."
Joro Walker, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, noted, "This kind of fast-tracking of decisions in favor of oil companies keeps the public out of the process and wreaks havoc on the few pristine landscapes we have left. So far, the BLM has shown itself incapable of balancing environmental protection with oil production."
"This ruling means that the destructive seismic testing has to stop now," said Johanna Wald, NRDC senior attorney. "Unfortunately, the damage already wreaked by thumper trucks to the fragile desert soil could take up to 300 years to heal fully, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. We're just glad we could stop it before it got any worse."
Also over the weekend, SUWA discovered that the BLM had covered up evidence of permit violations by WesternGeco, the oil exploration company. For example, while the permit directed the BLM to halt work if the enormous trucks left more than four-inch deep ruts in the ground, SUWA discovered deep, fifteen-inch ruts that would vastly increase the rate of soil erosion and environmental damage. BLM workers apparently raced to the area at first light on Saturday to fill in the ruts when they heard that a reporter would visit the area that day and that conservationists were gathering evidence in support of their stay request.
"The BLM should be embarrassed by its behavior. First they permit a destructive project to go ahead in violation of federal laws, then they cover it up," said Kevin Walker of the Sierra Club.
To view photos of the area and the damage done before the stay, see www.suwa.org/dpseis.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Related NRDC Pages
BioGems: Redrock Wilderness