Court Blocks Oil Exploration Near Arches National Park

Ruling a Rebuke to Bush Interior Department, Victory for Environmentalists

WASHINGTON (October 29, 2002) -- In response to a lawsuit by three environmental organizations, a federal court today blocked the Interior Department from allowing oil exploration in thousands of acres of public wildlands on the eastern boundary of Utah's Arches National Park. The three groups, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and The Wilderness Society, filed the suit to stop the project in late September in federal court in the District of Columbia, asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction.

"The court recognized the outstanding aesthetic, recreational and biological value of Utah's canyon lands and the damage the Interior Department's action would cause," said SUWA attorney Stephen Bloch.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had approved a request by the world's largest seismic exploration company, WesternGeco, to explore for oil and gas in the Dome Plateau region, also known as the Yellow Cat 2-D Swath project area. The project area encompasses more than 23,000 acres of scenic wildlands popular with hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The region also provides habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including the black-footed ferret, the bald eagle and the Mexican spotted owl. Congress currently is considering a bill, America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which would designate portions of the project area as wilderness.

The court agreed with the environmental groups that the proposed oil exploration would irreparably harm the Utah canyon lands' fragile landscape. The court order halts the project until the judge has time to fully analyze the environmentalists' claims that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act.

Attorneys for the groups had maintained that BLM relied on a woefully inadequate Environmental Assessment (EA) that failed to demonstrate there would be "no significant impact" on the human environment. To the contrary, they noted that WesternGeco would have used 60,000-pound "thumper trucks" crisscrossing sensitive desert soils, vibrating the ground at regular intervals to record seismic information about oil deposits. Thumper trucks ravage soil, causing such ecological damage that it could take as many as 300 years for the desert to recover.

"The Bush administration is willing to ignore the law to give oil companies open access to America's treasured public lands," said Sharon Buccino, an NRDC senior attorney. "Fortunately the court said no."

The Bush administration has been pushing federal land managers to "fast-track" development on public lands across the West allegedly to bolster U.S. energy security. Last year, BLM released a blueprint memo outlining a strategy to open up public lands for oil and gas exploration and drilling. In another memo, released earlier this year, BLM told federal land managers in Utah that oil and gas lease applications coming into the agency should be considered "priority number one."

Noting that BLM recently approved exploration by WesternGeco in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado, Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, said, "Approving oil exploration and drilling in America's most scenic wilderness landscapes has become a pattern at the Interior Department. These breathtaking public lands should not be cavalierly handed over to the energy industry."

BLM's Utah decision is just one example of the Bush administration's willingness to ignore NEPA, NRDC's Buccino pointed out. Recently the administration also proposed to exclude logging and ocean activities, such as sonar testing, from NEPA requirements for environmental review and public participation.

The environmental groups are represented by Bloch at SUWA, Buccino at NRDC, and Katherine Meyer at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein.