Conservation Groups Also Win Appeal Challenging Other BLM Drilling Plans
SALT LAKE CITY (December 8, 2004) -- The Bureau of Land Management's Utah State Office yesterday decided against offering two highly controversial oil and gas leases just outside of Hovenweep National Monument, in far southeastern Utah. This decision comes a few days before BLM's upcoming auction of public lands in Utah for energy development, and less than a week after a coalition of outfitters, archeologists and conservation groups protested the lease sale.
"BLM has made the right decision to withdraw the two leases near Hovenweep National Monument from its upcoming sale," said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It was clear that the agency hadn't done its homework before announcing that it would offer these special places for sale." Bloch expressed disappointment, however, over BLM's decision to lease two other parcels near Hovenweep and warned that, "The impacts of oil and gas development to this spectacular area will not be mitigated by simply painting an oil rig 'red' rather than 'brown,' as BLM claims."
The public lands in-and-around Hovenweep are renown for being rich in cultural sites such as ancient cliff dwellings and kivas.
"We're relieved that BLM has come to its senses and decided not offer some of the magnificent lands near Hovenweep for oil and gas development," said Vaughn and Marcia Hadenfeldt, co-owners of Far-Out Expeditions (Bluff, Utah).
"The public lands outside of Hovenweep National Monument are too valuable to be leased and developed for the short-term gain of a single company or individual," said Sonia Hutmacher-Cunningham, Vice-President for Governmental Affairs for the Utah Professional Archeological Council. "Development on these lands would be devastating to the important natural and culturally significant qualities of the monument."
All told, conservation groups protested 25 of the 83 parcels BLM originally planned to lease for energy development on December 10. The agency has decided to defer all but 25 of those parcels from the sale, including a dozen of the ones opposed by conservation groups. If the contested parcels are leased by oil and gas companies conservation groups vow to pursue a legal challenge to their development.
Interior Board Rules Against BLM
The Hovenweep leasing controversy follows a conservation victory on November 30, 2004, in which the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) ruled in favor of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), overturning an August 2002 BLM decision to lease approximately 9500 acres of public lands for oil and gas development.
Of the seven parcels contested by the conservation groups, four are located east of Zion National Park and three are located near Bear Lake, in extreme northeastern Utah.
In June 2002, then-Zion National Park Superintendent Martin Ott wrote to BLM expressing several concerns about the four proposed leases outside the Park, and near the East Fork of the Virgin River. In his letter, Superintendent Ott requested that BLM include protective stipulations for the four lease parcels to protect important Park, Monument, and municipal watersheds. BLM did not include the requested stipulations and sold the four parcels without the protections sought by the National Park Service. BLM erroneously told the Park Service that the requested stipulations would be considered at the drilling stage, when in fact BLM could not guarantee that these protections would be made mandatory.
In its decision last week, the IBLA agreed with SUWA and NRDC that BLM could not rely on thirty-year-old planning documents -- prepared without any accompanying National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis -- to sanction oil and gas leasing and development.
"Given the fact that BLM's position on appeal is based on its erroneous view that its action is supported by pre-leasing [environmental impact statements], we find it appropriate to reverse BLM's decision and remand the case," the Board ruled. The Board also noted in its decision that the outdated land use plans relied on by several Utah BLM field offices -- or "management framework plans" -- were to have been replaced long ago by new, comprehensive management documents.
Previously, on November 10, the Board also upheld SUWA's and NRDC's challenge of 17 other lease parcels located, in part, in southern Utah's redrock country that BLM sold in March 2002.
"There is no justification for BLM's rampant and reckless policy of seemingly trying to lease every last bit of public land under its control," said NRDC Senior Attorney Sharon Buccino.
Utah, like most Western states, has a surplus of BLM lands that have been leased for oil and gas development but are not in production, as well as a surplus of applications for permit to drill. According to BLM figures, at the end of fiscal year 2003, just under 4 million acres of Utah BLM lands were leased -- but less than 905,000 were in production. Likewise, between January 2001 and November 2004, Utah's Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining had approved 3,311 permits to drill oil and gas wells -- but in this same period only 2,065 wells have been drilled.
"Since BLM is already leasing the public's land faster than industry can develop it, it makes us wonder why they continue to try to lease sensitive wild lands," said SUWA's Stephen Bloch. "If they don't slow down, we're facing the permanent loss of some real Western treasures."