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APPEALS BOARD STAYS YELLOWCAT OIL EXPLORATION
SALT LAKE CITY -- In an extraordinary decision issued late Saturday night, a federal administrative appeals officer in Washington D.C. halted the controversial Yellowcat oil exploration project just north of Arches National Park. The Office of Hearings and Appeals held that the BLM had violated federal environmental laws by ignoring concerns raised by conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and others. The OHA also found that the potential damage to the area, known as Dome Plateau (and also proposed for wilderness designation), justified an immediate halt to the project.
This controversial project is one of many planned in the Moab area, and reflects the Bush administration’s focus on oil production from even the most pristine public lands.
The BLM had fast-tracked the decision, allowing 52,000 pound "thumper trucks" to roll across fragile desert soils and vegetation, where the damage could last for up to 300 years according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The decision was appealed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Referring to an internal BLM memo obtained by SUWA in January in which the Utah BLM received explicit direction from Washington that requests by oil companies to explore and drill on public lands is the agency’s "No. 1 priority," SUWA’s Liz Thomas said, "This kind of abysmal environmental review is what you would expect from an agency beholden to oil companies instead of the public. BLM’s single-minded approach hurts the environment, hurts the American public and it even hurts oil companies when they are surprised by environmental problems with the permits."
Joro Walker an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, noted that "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."
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.