Feds look to approve helium well inside new wilderness area as opponents decry political ‘mischief’

(Courtesy photo by Pete McBride, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Utah’s distinctive Bowknot Bend on the Green River was included in the recently designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area. Now the Bureau of Land Management is poised to approve a helium well on land, marked in red, inside the wilderness area designated under the Emery County land bill signed into law in March 2019.

A Denver company is seeking to cash in on skyrocketing helium prices with a proposal to drill in a remote corner of Utah’s Emery County near sinuous bends in the Green River and the Horseshoe Canyon unit of Canyonlands National Park.

While most people think of helium as the lighter-than-air stuff filling party balloons, the inert gas is vital to scientific research and medical diagnostic procedures that could be put at risk if new sources aren’t developed.

The trouble with the proposal by Twin Bridges Resources, however, is it seeks drilling inside Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area, designated last year under a sweeping land conservation bill. Making matters worse, the Bureau of Land Management leased the land for development after the U.S. House had passed a version of the enabling legislation, but before a final bill was approved by the Senate and signed into law, according to Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“It was sold and issued at the 11th hour, as the act was finishing its way through Congress and on the way to the president’s desk,” Bloch said. “When lands are designated as wilderness they are closed to this kind of activity. So this was a sprint by the administration at the behest of private industry to get the camel’s nose under the tent and to leave a placeholder so there could be the opportunity for exactly the kind of mischief that we’re seeing now.”

The BLM last week issued an environmental assessment (EA) for the project, opening a public comment period through Nov. 4. The agency contends the lease was legally issued and it is now obligated to accommodate development under its multiple-use mandate, while minimizing surface disturbance and resource conflicts.

“We have been working diligently to implement the Dingell Act since its enactment and staff with significant subject-matter expertise in wilderness management and minerals leasing have closely analyzed Twin Bridges, LLC’s applications for a permit to drill,” said BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch. “Twin Bridges, LLC holds a valid existing right lease in the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness and the Dingell Act and the Wilderness Act both specify that valid existing rights shall be honored.”

Three years before Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, Twin Bridges had already acquired leases on two state trust sections near Bowknot Bend, a distinctive meander of the Green River incised deep in Labyrinth Canyon, where a rich helium deposit is believed to lie.

“The Bowknot Helium Project will benefit the Utah state educational system with substantial funding and will also provide the critical resource of helium to the USA,” Twin Bridges managing partner Thomas Wallace wrote in an email. “The company is proposing no surface activity on wilderness lands.”

The company plans to tap helium under all three leases with directional drilling from a single well pad located off-lease, but accessible from an existing road.

The federal lease was offered at the BLM’s December 2018 online auction, its largest for Utah during the Trump administration, where 105 parcels were offered covering 154,000 acres.

Twin Bridges bought the 1,410-acre lease, situated next to the two state parcels it had already leased, for just $6 an acre. It acquired no other lease parcels at that sale.

By then, the U.S. House had passed the lands bill that was to designate the 54,643-acre Labyrinth Canyon and 16 other wilderness areas in Emery County. The bill also designated 49 miles of the Green through Labyrinth Canyon as scenic and wild river.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Considered a bucket-list river trip, this stretch is a central offering for many Utah guides, such as Holiday River Expeditions.

“The unfettered arid desert landscape, currently under attack, provides a critical wilderness buffer in sight, smell and sound for our river trips through the secluded refuge of Labyrinth Canyon,” said Lauren Wood, a third-generation Utah guide who owns Holiday. “This place is special for any human to experience, but it is also part of the integral lifeblood that keeps outfitters like us afloat.”

Through a quirk of geology, Bowknot Bend is the site of a reservoir of helium-bearing gases, first discovered in 1962 by wildcat drillers. The gas that came up during exploratory drilling back then yielded gases that were nearly 1.5% helium, triple the concentrations needed for profitable extraction under current prices, according to a recent report on Utah’s helium resources by the Utah Geological Survey.

In the face of global shortages, the price of helium climbed to $210 per thousand cubic feet in 2019, nearly 100 times the spot price for natural gas. The shortage has eased in recent months, since few are buying helium-filled balloons during the pandemic, yet helium prices have continued to climb, according to the American Institute of Physics.

High prices have increased pressure to explore new sources, and southern Utah is known to harbor significant deposits. Helium is often associated with natural gas deposits and is sometimes extracted as a byproduct of natural gas production. Only one site in Utah, Harley Dome is Grand County, is currently producing helium as its target gas, with a second site called Woodside Dome expected to come online soon. Bowknot would be Utah’s third producing site.

According to the project’s EA, Twin Bridges plans to consolidate wells and service lines in an effort to minimize the project’s footprint. But it would still result in a five-acre drill pad and up to five miles of buried utility lines connecting the well with the processing plant. An existing access road the proposed drill site were excluded from the wilderness in a cartographic maneuver called “cherry-stemming.”

The drill site is "entirely surrounded by the Labyrinth Canyon wilderness. The drilling of those seven [potential] wells, with a 150-foot-tall rig, that’s more than half a year’s worth of drilling noise and all the activity related to that,” Bloch said. “This project would result in fundamental changes to this remarkably remote and quiet area. It would bring about the industrialization of the wilderness area and the surrounding wilderness-caliber federal lands.”

The company plans to initially drill two horizontal well bores from the pad, one reaching a state lease and the other reaching the federal lease deeper into the wilderness area, according to the EA. If the initial wells yield paying quantities of helium-bearing gas, more wells and infrastructure would follow.