Groups Seek to Halt Oil and Gas Exploration Near Utah's Arches National Park

Famed Dome Plateau Area Under Siege as New Drilling Marks Latest Move in National Plan to Open Up Public Lands to "Fast-Track" Drilling

SALT LAKE (February 12, 2002) - In the second wave of legal battles to staunch the flow of oil and gas drilling on Utah's pristine public lands, environmentalists today filed an appeal with the Department of Interior to halt oil and gas exploration at famed Dome Plateau, a 23,000 acre area within two miles of Arches National Park. Treasured for its wild scenic beauty, the area drew international attention last week when the Olympic Torch passed through, even as plans were underway for seismic testing this week.

Environmental groups warn that oil and gas rigs may soon dot the landscape, along with heavy-duty trucks and equipment that will destroy fragile desert soil for years and degrade air quality. The four groups -- 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of Interior, charging that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hastily prepared a review of the project based on outdated information, ignored viable exploratory alternatives that are less damaging to the environment, and omitted reports from other federal agencies warning of potential damage.

"This is hard to characterize this as anything but abhorrent," said NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald. "The government is proceeding at an alarming pace and in complete disregard of the law. If they think they can get away with exploration and drilling without full environmental impact statements and that no one will notice or have the resources and time to legally challenge them, they're dead wrong."

The BLM permits extensive and intrusive geophysical exploration throughout the area that will mar the landscape with traffic and equipment. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the agency is required to consider viable alternatives to these invasive and environmentally damaging industrial activities. Although alternatives are available for the seismic exploration project, such as shot-hole drilling, which would cause less surface impact, and using existing trails for exploration that would minimize traffic along the desert's fragile floor, Eclipse Exploration, the company responsible for the project, pushed for a cheaper and a more environmentally damaging alternative.

"The Bush Administration is giving away these vast, magnificent landscapes -- icons of the American west -- to energy companies," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Not only are they ignoring broad public sentiment on this issue, they're also ignoring the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state and federal agencies that are concerned about the damage this project would cause."

In granting the permit, BLM chose to ignore information from a geophysical expert who warned that Eclipe's alternative plan was wasteful, noting that it would yield only a general look at the subsurface and that oil and gas exploration activities should take place along existing routes. An expert from the U.S. Geological Survey noted in another report that the impact of heavy traffic and the development of new roads in the company's preferred alternative would severely damage and erode the area's fragile soil and vegetation, necessitating a recovery time of more than 10 years and possibly up to 300 years.

Environmental lawyers for the groups noted that BLM also gave the project an outdated visual resources management (VRM) classification based on 1985 data that was no longer accurate. A VRM classification is a critical component in environmental assessments of a project since it is that rating which limits industrial development on those activities that might mar or obstruct the landscape.

Today's action marks the second round of legal battles that environmental groups are waging to thwart the Bush Administration's attempt to open up public lands to drilling without environmental reviews. In January, SUWA and NRDC filed a lawsuit against BLM over 12 oil and gas leases in Southern Utah.

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 strategy to open up public lands for oil and gas exploration and drilling. In a recent memo to Utah state directors, BLM drove this message home stating, "Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understand that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority."

Like many areas in the west under siege by the administration's frantic pace of oil and gas exploration, Utah's wilderness is one the nation's premier natural environments, hosting a myriad of recreational activities. Lockhart Basin and Dome Plateau, for example, with nearby Indian Creek, Fisher Towers and Castleton Towers are world famous for hiking, mountain biking and rock-climbing.

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.