Southern Utah environmental group sues feds over public lands leased for oil and gas development in Alkali Ridge

(The Salt Lake Tribune | Brian Maffly) In this March 27, 2018 photo, a crew erects a reworking rid on an old oil well on Alkali Ridge east of Blanding where the Bureau of Land Management has issued numerous new leases in an area blanketed with Anasazi artifacts. Obscure companies with no track record in the energy business are amassing leases here over the objections of historic preservation groups that fear BLM lacks sufficient information about thousands of cultural sites to ensure their protection should the area get drilled. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed a lawsuit on April 19, 2019, against BLM and others over the lease sales.

A southern Utah environmental group is suing the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management over its leasing public lands with plentiful remainders of ancient civilization for oil and gas development, and is asking the court to vacate the lease sales.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, alleges the departments didn’t properly analyze how leasing the land for oil and gas development in an area of southern Utah, known as the Alkali Ridge, could affect the cultural relics left behind there, including cliff dwellings, pueblos, kivas, petroglyph and pictographs and sites American Indian tribes consider sacred, according to the lawsuit.

The group says the leases are located in “one of the most culturally and archaeologically rich regions of the United States.”

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Utah’s U.S. District Court, deals with 35 parcels of lands leased by the BLM in two sales in March and December 2018, covering 34,508 acres near the Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep national monuments. The BLM planned a third sale in the area for March, but canceled it.

The lawsuit alleges that thorough testing on the impacts of oil and gas development was not done because the BLM wanted to align with President Donald Trump’s “'energy dominance agenda.” It also says the group eliminated public feedback on leasing decisions and sought to get rid of any “'burden[s]' on oil and gas leasing and development.”

The National Park Service raised concerns about the BLM’s leasing proposal for the lands, saying they didn’t analyze the impacts of oil and gas exploration on groundwater, in addition to the potential for earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing — an oil and gas extracting technique using high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals that is generally known as fracking — and its wastewater byproduct, the lawsuit said.

It quotes the NPS as saying that even slight tremors caused by such earthquakes could threaten prehistoric structures at the Hovenweep National Monument.

SUWA also had concerns and filed a protest against the March 2018 lease sale. BLM denied the protest.

The lawsuit, which also names recently confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and BLM’s deputy state director for lands and minerals, alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy and Federal Land Policy and Management acts.

In addition to asking the court to vacate all lease sales, the lawsuit also argues that the defendants shouldn’t be able to approve or take any actions on applications to drill on these leases until they comply with the National Environmental Policy and Federal Land Policy and Management acts.

Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Utah ecological group, is also suing to invalidate lease sales in the area.

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