Groups ask BLM to halt Nevada oil drilling in sage grouse habitat

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A Sage-Grouse Struts takes flight after strutting on a lek in the Parker Mountain area near Loa, Friday, April 22, 2016.

Reno, Nev. • Conservationists say the Trump administration’s approval of exploratory drilling for oil in sage grouse habitat on federal land in eastern Nevada violates its own protection guidelines and ignores concerns raised by scientists about potential harm to the bird imperiled across much of the West.

Two groups are asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s state director to at least temporarily halt the Western Oil Exploration Co.'s plans to drill two oil wells on public lands about 40 miles west of Ely.

"BLM can't be counted on to enforce its own sage-grouse plans, especially in Nevada," said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for the Western Watersheds Project.

The wells are planned in sage grouse habitat within 4 miles of three key breeding grounds known as leks. Opponents say those areas are supposed to be off limits under a resource management plan amendment the BLM adopted in 2015 and upheld by a federal judge last year.

The formal request comes on the heels of a string of federal court rulings in several western states taking the Trump administration to task for what judges found were failures to protect the environment as it promotes the oil and gas industry and extraction of natural resources from public lands.

Officials for the Las Vegas-based Western Oil Exploration Co. didn't respond to a telephone call and emails seeking comment. The company's web site says it is "developing what could be considered a world-class oil deposit in Nevada with the full support of the US Government and President Trump."

The conservationists say the drilling in Nevada will cause irreparable harm to the bird and unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands.

"The Trump administration has been recklessly pursuing fossil fuel extraction at the expense of Nevada's wildlife and climate," said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The BLM is flouting the law so Trump's campaign donors can continue to reap oil-soaked profits from our public lands."

Among other things, they say the BLM is failing to require remote monitoring of the project's facilities and allowing construction to begin without measuring the existing background noise levels to assess the effects of additional construction noise.

Noise can have significant adverse impact on grouse listening for the calls of potential mates.

The groups cite letters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nevada Department of Wildlife raising concerns about the drilling plans. USFWS noted in a letter to the agency in February that the Bureau of Land Management's analysis of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act concluded that grouse are likely to abandon leks around the project area.

Jasmine Kleiber, a wildlife staff specialist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said also in a letter to the bureau in February that its assertion that noise levels would be below a certain level "is not supported by any recent science or other Nevada BLM NEPA analyses that properly measure baseline ambient noise levels, and thus should be revised."

The conservationists said the agency would not suffer any harm by delaying the project it approved under an environmental assessment in April. They are asking for a chance to make an oral presentation to the agency's Nevada Director Jon Raby to state their case.

"Nothing in the BLM's final (assessment) indicates there is any overriding emergency or urgency around approving the project at this time," according to the request for review.

Bureau spokesman Chris Rose confirmed they have received the request for review.

“We are working on setting up an oral presentation,” he wrote in an email to AP on Monday.