SALT LAKE CITY (September 26, 2002) -- Holding true to a pledge to protect some 23,000 acres of spectacular public wildlands on the eastern boundary of Arches National Park in Utah, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Wilderness Society have filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop an oil exploration project in the area and have also asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO).
The Department of Interior, through its Bureau of Land Management (BLM), authorized a project sought by WesternGeco to explore for oil in the Dome Plateau region, also known as the Yellow Cat 2-D Swath. The project area encompasses more than 35 square miles of scenic landscapes popular with hikers, mountain bikers and other recreationalists. Some of the lands are proposed for wilderness designation in America's Redrock Wilderness Act. The region is also home to several threatened or endangered species including the black-footed ferret, the bald eagle and the Mexican spotted owl.
The environmental groups charge that the BLM failed to fully analyze the environmental impacts of the project, ignoring both the significant environmental damage it would inflict upon the area and its likely negative impacts on endangered or threatened species in the region.
Attorneys for the case say that BLM relied on a woefully inadequate Environmental Assessment (EA) that failed to demonstrate there would be "no significant impact" on the human environment. On the contrary, they note that the proposed exploration project would involve 60,000-pound "thumper trucks" criss-crossing undisturbed and sensitive desert soils, pounding the ground at regular intervals to record seismic information about oil deposits. Thumper trucks ravage the soil, causing ecological impacts so severe it could take nearly 300 years for the desert to recover.
Additionally, environmentalists charge that the BLM never considered exploration alternatives less environmentally damaging than the thumper trucks. Nor did the agency consider available mitigation measures to lessen the impact of exploration activities or require WetsernGeco to comply with rehabilitation standards to rectify environmental damage.
This project gained widespread attention earlier this year when the Interior Board of Land Appeals halted the project after reviewing letters from the U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others that were critical of the quality of the BLM's environmental review. The Board reversed itself last month after the Secretary of Interior obtained expedited review of the appeal.
"In Utah we have seen the Department of Interior approve an unprecedented number oil and gas exploration projects, which neatly coincides with record-setting levels of oil and gas leasing and drilling on some of this country's most scenic public lands," said SUWA attorney Steve Bloch. "We are not going to let the Department of Interior relinquish these areas to destructive oil and gas development without first conducting thorough environmental impact reviews."
The Bush administration has been pushing federal land managers to "fast-track" development on public lands across the West as part of implementing energy security plans. Last year, BLM released a blueprint memo outlining a strategy to open up public lands for oil and gas exploration and drilling. In a memo to the Utah state director earlier this year, BLM said that oil and gas lease applications coming into the agency should be viewed as "priority number one."
Noting that BLM recently approved exploration by WesternGeco in Canyons of the Ancients, Suzanne Jones, Assistant Regional Director of The Wilderness Society added, "Approving oil exploration and drilling in America's most scenic wilderness landscapes has become a pattern in the Department of Interior. These breathtaking public lands should not be the subject of corporate giveaways."
"Utah is one example of what is happening all over the West," noted NRDC senior attorney Sharon Buccino. "We are fighting back in the courts but there are many more cases like Dome Plateau out there. If the Bush administration gets its way, its 'energy first' policy will ravage our nation's Western cultural and natural heritage."
The conservation groups are also represented by the D.C. law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein.
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.