BLM Plans to Resurrect Expired Tar Sands Leases
Monument, National Recreation Area, and Wilderness Study Areas at Risk

Under direction from the U.S. Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has set the wheels in motion to reinstate expired oil and gas leases within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and two Wilderness Study Areas.

The purpose of the move isn’t to allow the oil and gas development for which the leases were originally issued.  It is to allow environmentally disastrous “tar sands” exploration and development.   SUWA and other conservation groups filed a lawsuit in April challenging these decisions, arguing that the BLM’s maneuver is illegal because the BLM’s efforts to reinstate the leases were not undertaken made before the leases expired more than a decade ago

The history of the leases in question is confusing and points to decades of sloppy management decisions by the BLM. One thing is certain: the majority of the leases expired shortly after the applications were filed in 1982-83, all expired by 1992.

In the early 1980s, the BLM received applications to convert conventional oil and gas leases to permit tar sands development and, in the mid-1980s, the agency prepared draft environmental impact statements to look at potential tar sands development in areas that today include much of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Fiddler Butte and French Spring-Happy Canyon wilderness study areas. 

Tar sands development would either involve strip mining large swaths of land, or an in situ variation of extraction such as underground fires.  The BLM’s own draft studies suggested that any level of tar sands development would bring significant, long-term environmental degradation to Utah’s pristine environments and require tremendous water use and substantial infrastructure for on-site refining and processing. 

As oil prices fell in the mid-1980s, the interest of the lessees/applicants waned (as did the BLM’s) and agency put these projects on the shelf for more than 20 years without finally adjudicating the underlying leases.  In the meantime, the national—and natural--significance of these lands was recognized and they were formally protected from future development. 

In a series of decisions issued in 2006-2007, the BLM breathed new life into these long- expired leases and many companies have taken the BLM up on this unexpected windfall to take a crack at developing the tar sands. 

The plaintiffs in this litigation include SUWA, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, and the Grand Canyon Trust.  Judge Dale Kimball will hear the case in federal district court in Salt Lake City.

 

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