Federal oil and gas leases mired in protests over pollution worries for Utah’s Uinta Basin

Environmental, public health and wilderness advocates warn that Dec. 11 auction of leases on 94,000 acres in eastern Utah threatens to worsen region’s ozone crisis.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Oilfields of the Uinta Basin southeast of Vernal. seen in 2012. Environmental, public health and wilderness advocates are protesting a Dec. 11 auction by the Bureau of Land Management of oil and gas leases on 94,000 acres in eastern Utah, claiming the leases will worsen the Uinta Basin’s ongoing problems air pollution problems with ozone.

The Bureau of Land Management’s next auction of oil and gas leases in Utah is under fire from a multitude of environmental, public health and wilderness groups. Topping the list of concerns is the likelihood that the Dec. 11 lease sale would worsen Uinta Basin’s persistent winter-time ozone levels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to declare Duchesne and Uintah counties out of compliance for emissions of ozone, a pollutant whose high concentrations are attributed to oil and gas development. That determination, expected as soon as Oct. 15, would trigger emission-reducing measures under the Clean Air Act that are expected to put on a damper on future drilling and require industry to stem the clouds of fumes rising from the oil patch.

Industry representatives say such rules will safeguard air quality, while allowing new oil and gas leases to be issued.

“One of the worst ways to address ozone is to stop economic development in the Basin. That would put the area in a double whammy,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil and gas industry trade group Western Energy Alliance.

But environmental activists argue all federal leasing should be holstered here until the worsening ozone situation is reversed. The upcoming on-line auction will offer 75 leases covering 94,000 acres in the Basin and Emery County.

“The region is suffering a smog crisis and the Bureau of Land Management is turning a blind eye to the problem,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program manager for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “Legally they are not allowed to issue more drilling permits until they can show their actions are solving the problem. This is a public threat. This is what matters more than anything else in northeastern Utah.”

WildEarth is among many groups filing formal protests of the auction in recent days.

Ozone is a corrosive three-atom oxygen molecule formed not far off the ground when volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, interact with sunlight. Usually a summer phenomenon, high ozone occurs in winter over the Uinta Basin when snow covers the ground and inversions prevent atmospheric mixing.

Joined by the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and other environmental groups, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has also highlighted the ozone question its protest.

“A pollution crisis will inevitably lead to a public health crisis, and there is preliminary evidence that one may already be occurring with high rates of perinatal deaths in the Uinta Basin,” said Dr. Brian Moench, president of the physicians group. “The health risks go well beyond ozone and particulate pollution. Although VOCs are not addressed by EPA national standards, they likely represent the greatest toxicity to the population, especially for infants and pregnant mothers.”

In its environmental review released last month, however, the BLM noted that leasing won’t in itself release pollutants that lead to ozone formation and other emissions. Those comes from what happens later—drilling and fracking wells and transporting oil and gas.

“At the leasing stage it is not known how much or even whether development will occur on those leases,” Sgamma said. “Once an implementation plans is in place, there is a process to ensure ozone levels will get down to the health standard. Any new development will have to be permitted accordingly.”

Shaping up to be Utah’s most intensely protested sale in a decade, the leases to be sold Dec. 11 have been controversial since they were first unveiled months ago because they include public lands along the western boundary of Dinosaur National Monument and areas in Emery County rich in rock art and natural beauty in and around San Rafael Swell.

Those concerns are the focus of protests filed by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and National Parks Conservation Association.

Inviting drilling in place like Molen Reef along the Swell’s western margins is “dumbfounding,” said SUWA staff attorney Landon Newell, whose protest was joined by The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club’s Utah chapter and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The Trump administration’s energy policy is trying to find a home in Utah’s redrock country but we’re not having any of it,” he said

Activists have been concerned with the Trump administration’s willingness to lease in areas previously proposed under President Obama for “master leasing plans.” They fear that in Trump’s push for “American energy dominance,” the Interior Department is walking away from a planning process designed to ensure more careful leasing near national parks and monuments.

But the BLM has deferred leasing decisions on 40 other parcels nominated by the oil and gas industry for this year’s lease auction out of its east-central Utah district, served by the Vernal and Price field offices. Twenty of those parcels were set aside because they fell inside the San Rafael Desert Master Lease Area, and another 20 land tracts were held because they overlap with sage grouse habitat, cultural resources or tar sands leases.