A consortium of environmental groups has filed suit challenging the BLM's decision to authorize drilling in unroaded wilderness-caliber lands surrounding Desolation Canyon.
Last June, Denver-based Gasco Energy gained federal approval to develop nearly 1,300 wells over a 207,000-acre project area in the southeast corner of the Uinta Basin where it transitions to the Tavaputs Plateau. The dispute is not so much over the amount of wells and associated infrastructure, but where this development will occur and its potential to further degrade the basin's air quality.
In a federal suit filed Friday in Salt Lake City, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups say Interior Secretary Ken Salazar botched the call in approving up to 215 wells on land proposed for wilderness near the Green River's most scenic, remote stretches.
"This decision made no sense, particularly when congressional leaders, conservation organizations, the American outdoor industry, and tens of thousands of citizens endorsed an alternative drilling plan that would have allowed Gasco to develop the majority of the project area and at the same time protected the sanctity of the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness," said Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Utah outdoor gear manufacturer Black Diamond, in a press statement. "This decision didn't square with my understanding of President Obama and Secretary Salazar's call for a balanced approach to energy development."
The BLM also approved drilling in the Pariette Wetlands and Nine Mile Canyon areas of critical environmental concern. Nearly one-fifth of the project area is roadless, according to the suit.
The Bureau of Land Management does not generally comment on pending litigation, but at the time of the Gasco project approval, Salazar said the plan reflected the Obama administration's commitment to address concerns about aggressive energy development in the Uinta Basin, which already experiences some of the worst wintertime ozone levels in the nation.
"As we move forward with President Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy, we must strive for balanced, environmentally appropriate development of our nation's energy resources," Salazar said in a release. "Working together with Gasco Energy, Inc., we have made substantial improvements to protect land and water resources, safeguarding iconic areas such as Desolation and Nine Mile Canyons, while supporting Utah's economy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil."
A compromise proposal advanced by conservationists called for 1,100 wells concentrated in areas that are already developed and are less sensitive. But Interior chose to "put one company's profits above the protection of this world-class landscape," said SUWA's Steve Bloch. Joining SUWA as plaintiffs are The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
Bloch conceded that the BLM did not authorize drilling within Desolation Canyon proper, but sights, sounds and smells of development will be apparent to river runners putting in at and floating by Sand Wash.
Industry representatives said the Gasco's environmental analysis has been eight years in the works and that various agencies signed off on the plan, which was crafted to protect Desolation.
"Any development is miles away from the wilderness study area," said Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry advocacy group. "That project represents a good balance between protecting the environment and creating 4,300 jobs over the life of the project."
Gasco, a publicly traded company whose stock has been selling for less than 10 cents in recent months, already operates 130 wells in the northern part of the project area.
Gasco had sought permission to drill 1,500 wells from the same number of pads, but in its Record of Decision BLM lowered the number to 1,300 drilled from 575 pads, cutting the surface disturbance in half to 3,600 acres. The agency believes the project area can yield up to 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the next 40 years.
Both federal and company officials touted the plan as the fruits of a collaboration among state, federal and tribal agencies, even though the Environmental Protection Agency doubted whether the environmental review adequately assessed the project's impacts to air quality and groundwater. Conservation advocates say their input was ignored, needlessly putting at risk untrammeled lands that support a variety of wildlife, including pronghorn and sage grouse, and threatened plant species.
"One of the nation's worst ozone pollution problems will be aggravated as the result of this shortsighted analysis," their suit alleges. "Cumulative impacts have not been treated seriously or, with regard to certain resources, not considered at all. Furthermore, one of the nation's most remote places will be compromised and lost to oil and gas development."