Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
(Courtesy Ray Bloxham | Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) These lands near the White River in Uintah County have been proposed for wilderness protection. Utah and some of its counties are suing the Bureau of Land Management to keep it from managing such places, which are not currently identified as wilderness study areas, for their "wilderness characteristics," claiming this amounts to an illegal impediment to oil and gas development.
Utah accuses BLM of illegally blocking energy development
Public lands » Suit blasts leasing reforms under Obama, but the feds say they are just giving proposals a good look.
First Published Jun 10 2014 09:25 am • Last Updated Jun 10 2014 10:00 pm

Does the Bureau of Land Management have the discretion to preserve wilderness values even on lands that lie outside designated wilderness and wilderness study areas?

That question is under debate in yet another expensive lawsuit Utah is litigating against the federal government.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

Joined by Uintah County and the Utah Association of Counties, the state alleges the BLM has imposed "de facto wilderness management" on unprotected land that agency inventories describe as having "wilderness characteristics."

Such a policy has unlawfully foreclosed oil and gas leasing and rights-of-way applications on lands that should be open but are proposed for protection under the long-shot America’s Red Rocks Wilderness Act, according to attorney Constance Brooks, who argued Uintah County’s case Friday before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.

Uintah and other counties have been excluded from key management decisions, she said.

"If you change management criteria," Brooks argued, "you have to amend the [land use] plan and that’s when you have to consult with local government. Something is out of whack here."

Environmentalists say the state’s position poses ramifications that extend far beyond the Red Rocks proposals.

"If the state and counties prevail in this case, Interior can manage all the uses on public land except for wilderness," said Steve Bloch, legal director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "That means BLM would be forced to open up some of the most remarkable lands in the West to extractive development."

At issue are leasing reforms the Obama administration adopted after a 2009 decision to rescind dozens of oil and gas leases sold in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration. These were among the leases Utah climate activist Tim DeChristopher monkey-wrenched with phony bids.

Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar concluded his predecessor had offered numerous leases near Utah national parks without adequate review and issued orders to better vet the parcels that industry "nominates" for energy development.


story continues below
story continues below

On Friday, federal lawyers, along with environmental groups that have intervened in the dispute, asked the court to dismiss the state’s suit, arguing Utah has failed to state an actionable injury arising from these policies. This is because the BLM has made no final agency decision to not lease the lands in question, but is using its legal discretion to "defer" a decision while it reviews them for their conservation values, argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Porsia and Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice.

Regardless, oil and gas production is up in Utah since 2008 and the BLM has authorized some of the disputed rights of way applications and is conducting reviews of the rest. Lawyers also said industry often fails to bid on parcels offered or fails to drill leases it does acquire.

Benson, who is also the judge who sentenced DeChristopher to prison for two years, took the matter under advisement after Friday’s hearing. A ruling for the state would simply keep the suit alive.

At stake is industry’s access to about a third of the land covered in the 9 million-acre Red Rocks bill, according to Assistant Utah Attorney General Harry Souvall. These are lands not currently under wilderness study and are available to oil and gas leasing under the BLM’s various resource management plans. To support the case that the BLM’s new leasing rules hurt local governments financially, Souvall claimed oil and gas production on Utah’s federal lands and related revenues are drying up.

The state’s half share of royalties from oil and gas production declined from $173 million in 2009 to $120 million in 2012, for example. But this drop came in the face of steady production levels and is attributable to a drop in natural gas prices due to a market glut, responded federal lawyers.

Souvall also said the one-time "bonus" payments industry paid for federal leases in Utah dropped from $40 million to $10 million between 2006 and 2010. But Porsia said picking these years creates a false picture of decline, when in fact these payments fluctuate widely from year to year. For example, such payments netted $6.4 million in 2005 and $40.3 million in 2012.

bmaffly@sltrib.com



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.