For Immediate Release

Contact:
Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 859-1552, steve@suwa.org  
Nada Culver, The Wilderness Society, (303) 650-5818 Ext. 117, nada_culver@tws.org
Jennifer Dickson, The Wilderness Society, (202) 316-2555, Jennifer_dickson@tws.org


Settlement Reinstates Common Sense Checks and Balances


Denver (April 1, 2010) – Groups involved in yesterday’s announcement that a settlement agreement had been reached in a case challenging the use of categorical exclusions to approve drilling in Nine Mile Canyon are reiterating that the settlement is a necessary step to ensure common sense principles are applied to approval of permits to drill. Contrary to Senator Bob Bennett’s (R-Utah) claims that this settlement is somehow inconsistent with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are issuing this statement to emphasize that these categorical exclusions are still available, but will be treated in the same manner as all other such exclusions from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, as Congress intended.

The agreement questioned by Senator Bennett was reached with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding a suit filed in US District Court in Utah in the summer of 2008 challenging the BLM’s approval of 30 natural gas wells in the Nine Mile Canyon region of Utah. Bill Barrett Corporation, one of the developers in the area, told the Associated Press that the company did not object to the terms of the settlement.

Under the Bush administration, the BLM approved drilling these wells using a categorical exclusion from environmental review established in the Energy Policy Act,  but did so without considering whether “extraordinary circumstances,” such as likely damage to cultural or ecological resources, were present that would make a more thorough environmental analysis necessary.  Thousands of other oil and gas wells were approved across the western United States using these same categorical exclusions and without considering “extraordinary circumstances.”

The improper use of these statutory categorical exclusions often permitted development that ignored impacts to the environment, historic properties, and other important resources, and also led to an investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which ultimately concluded that the BLM was "out of compliance" with the Energy Policy Act and raised concerns about the BLM’s use of such exclusions.  As a part of this settlement, the BLM has agreed not to use these categorical exclusions until environmental analysis can be completed for development in the Nine Mile Canyon area. The agency has also agreed these exclusions will not be used when there may be “extraordinary circumstances” present and will issue national policy guidance to this effect.

The following statement can be attributed to Stephen Bloch, conservation director and attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance:

“The terms of the settlement agreement require that BLM ’think first, then act’ in its approvals of oil and gas drilling on public lands  We expect Senator Bennett will find that this clarifying policy does not hinder energy development in the US, but instead creates a clear playing field for companies who wish to develop on public lands. Returning common sense and consistency to the use of categorical exclusions will avoid further litigation and improve management of these public lands.”

The following statement can be attributed to Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center:

“This settlement agreement keeps the categorical exclusions for drilling in place, but now clarifies the intent of the statute – as repeatedly urged by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and supporter of the Energy Policy Act. In his letters to both former Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne (in 2007) and Secretary Salazar (in 2009), Senator Bingaman called for the BLM to correct its implementation of these exclusions. This settlement is an important step forward in balancing energy production with conserving our public lands, which requires that we protect the many valuable resources and uses of these open spaces.”

Resources:
Copy of the settlement agreement

the GAO report

Photographs:
Nine Mile Canyon Panorama

An Archaeological Site in Nine Mile Canyon
Nine Mile Canyon Panorama

 

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