Contacts: Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 486-3161 x.3981
               Pam Miller, Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, (435) 650-2900
               Suzanne Jones (x 102) or Nada Culver (x 117), The Wilderness Society,
               (303) 650-5818

BLM’s Approval of 25 Natural Gas Wells in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon Region Sparks Lawsuit
Groups challenge BLM’s illegal “act first, think later” practice

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH (August 7, 2008) A coalition of historic preservation and conservation groups yesterday challenged a recent spate of decisions issued by the Bureau of Land Management to fast-track natural gas drilling in Utah’s remarkable Nine Mile Canyon region. BLM’s decisions approved Bill Barrett Corporation’s requests to drill 25 new natural gas wells without any analysis or consideration of the impacts that drilling and maintaining those wells will have to the area’s unique rock art and renowned collection of cultural sites. BLM approved these 25 new wells under a loophole in the Republican-controlled Congress’s Energy Policy Act of 2005.

“Nine Mile Canyon is an unusual place full of rock art, prehistoric ruins, and historic reminders of Utah's military, farming, and ranching history,” said Pam Miller, chair of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition’s board of directors. “By using a loophole to issue drilling permits, BLM is avoiding considering the importance of these resources and the impacts of industrial development on our past.”

Nine Mile Canyon has been increasingly threatened by unchecked drilling and development activities that threaten the area’s integrity. The approval of these 25 wells is in addition to the proposed drilling of more than 800 new natural gas wells by Bill Barrett Corporation in the “West Tavaputs natural gas full field development project,” which is being planned for archaeologically rich West Tavaputs plateau in the northeast portion of Carbon County. 

“The Bill Barrett Corporation announced on Monday another record quarter of profits and has many other non-controversial areas that it could target for drilling, but it has chosen to focus on an area that is truly one of the West’s ancient treasures,” says Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “BLM is also complicit because the agency has chosen to ignore environmental safeguards, which could result in irreversible damage to the cultural artifacts of the Nine Mile Canyon region.”

In addition, the West Tavaputs project has been widely and universally panned. The BLM received more than 53,000 comments in opposition to the project from citizens across the country, and also received letters criticizing the project from the state of Utah, the Hopi Tribe, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  The Environmental Protection Agency rated the draft environmental impact statement as “inadequate” and required BLM to prepare a supplemental analysis for public review to consider impacts to air quality.  Copies of these comment letters are available on-line at www.suwa.org/WestTavaputs.

The lawsuit filed yesterday asserts that BLM’s rapid approval of 25 new natural gas wells violated federal laws that require the agency to “think first, then act.”  The National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act require BLM to analyze the full range of environmental impacts caused by the natural gas drilling and development before it gives the green light to new activities.  By approving these activities under loopholes known as “statutory categorical exclusions” BLM is not considering these potentially significant impacts.

“Over the past seven years, as the administration has relentlessly pushed oil and gas projects into iconic Western landscapes, BLM has repeatedly and embarrassingly been forced to rescind ill-considered leasing decisions,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society’s Central Rockies Office. “When it comes to BLM’s illegal practice of acting before thinking, the West Tavaputs project is certainly one of the most egregious examples.”

The groups participating in the legal challenge do not oppose drilling on public lands—and indeed do not challenge the vast majority of leasing and development proposed for BLM lands—but are concerned about the damage to important public values when drilling is located in proposed wilderness or areas with rich cultural resources such as Nine Mile Canyon, and/or adequate safeguards are not required to ensure that the impacts of drilling are minimized on these other important public land uses.

Background on West Tavaputs Full Field Development Project

The West Tavaputs project is by far the largest of several Barrett projects that are rapidly changing the face of the Nine Mile Canyon region, an area that the state of Utah describes in its website as an “outdoor museum” that “should be shown the respect due to one of the West’s ancient treasures.” (See www.utah.com/playgrounds/nine_mile.htm.) According to the BLM’s website, the Nine Mile Canyon region contains the “the greatest concentration of rock art sites in the U.S.A.” (See http://www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/price/recreation/9mile/9mile_col2.html.) More than 1,000 of these sites have been identified, along with centuries-old standing structures such as cliff dwellings and pit houses.

The West Tavaputs project would industrialize an area that has received global recognition for its cultural resources and would permanently alter its unspoiled and wild nature. The proposed drilling would effectively eliminate large swaths of the Jack Canyon and Desolation Canyon BLM wilderness study areas, as well as two adjacent areas that BLM recognizes as having wilderness character. Under BLM and Bill Barrett Corp.’s “preferred” alternative, 230 wells more than a quarter of the total number of project wells would be drilled in these wild areas. The Desolation Canyon portion of the Green River, one of the West’s most iconic and remote stretches of river, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969. Because of that designation, the BLM is required to manage the canyon to retain its remote and natural setting.

The West Tavaputs project “preferred alternative” would authorize approximately 800 new natural gas wells over a 20 year period over a 137,000 acre project area in a largely remote and wild corner of east-central Utah. Though the project area has seen limited oil and gas drilling over the past 50 years, the level of development proposed by Bill Barrett Corp. would exponentially exceed the number of wells previously drilled in the area. The vast majority of the project is located on public lands managed on behalf of all Americans by the BLM.

Photographs of the types of cultural resources at risk from the West Tavaputs project can be viewed at SUWA’s website: www.suwa.org/WestTavaputs. Also available at that link electronic copies of comments submitted by various groups and organizations on the project.



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