Groups sue to block helium drilling project inside Utah wilderness

These environmental groups are trying to block a pre-Christmas authorization to start work in Labyrinth Canyon.

(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. Environmental groups are suing to block the Bureau of Land Management from approving 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.

Several environmental groups have gone to court to block the Trump administration from authorizing a helium drilling project inside newly designated wilderness in southern Utah.

Just days before the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness was established as part of a larger public lands bill for Emery County, the Bureau of Land Management issued leases on 1,400 acres to a company called Twin Bridges Resources, then fast-tracked an analysis of the Denver firm’s drilling program.

“It’s truly stunning how brazen the Trump administration has been these past four years in serving up our pristine, iconic landscapes to industry,” said Josh Axelrod, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Its race to secure this project’s approval for the helium industry’s benefit is flatly illegal, and we’ll defend this special area at every turn.”

The groups led by the the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sued last week to invalidate the leases, as well as an order enjoining the BLM from authorizing the project, which the agency is expected to do next week less than a month ahead of President Donald Trump’s exit from the White House.

“BLM will soon decide whether to authorize one of two alternative plans for the project, either of which will irreversibly industrialize one of the most remote, spectacular, and undeveloped locations in the United States,” states the groups’ motion for an injunction filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The proposed wells would be sited on consolidated sites and drilled directionally. The drill sites are “cherry-stemmed” inside the new wilderness area, meaning they would be drilled on clearings at the ends of existing roads.

“BLM plans to authorize the project on or around December 23, 2020 so that Twin Bridges Resources can immediately begin surface-disturbing construction, work through the Christmas weekend unimpeded,” the groups alleged in court papers filed Friday, “and evade judicial review by quickly commencing their environmentally destructive activities.”

Joining SUWA and NRDC are the Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers.

“The agency rushed to close the [leasing] deal knowing the area was about to be permanently closed to future leasing and development,” the groups said in a joint news release.

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 federal lease was issued 11 days before Trump signed the Dingell Act into law in March 2019, thus establishing the new Emery County wilderness areas.

A BLM spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit in accordance with Interior Department policy, but she did note that the federal lease is a valid pre-existing right and the BLM is taking steps to minimize the project’s impacts on Labyrinth Canyon.

“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 Kimberly Finch.

Newell alleged BLM is under pressure from higher-ups in the Interior Department to get the project approved before Christmas so work can commence over the holiday. Another SUWA attorney checked the proposed drill sites last week and saw Emery County road crews improving the main access routes, he said.

“This is being orchestrated to make it difficult to challenge [in court],” Newell said. “To get an injunction you have to show irreparable harm. The BLM is aware of this. If they rush fast enough they know we can’t show irreparable because the harm already have happened.”

Twin Bridges plans to tap helium, a valuable inert gas essential for scientific research and party balloons, under all three leases from a single well pad located off-lease, but accessible from an existing road. The gas would be piped to a processing plant on state land outside the wilderness area.

The company had purchased the 1,410-acre federal lease, situated next to the two state parcels it had already leased, for $6 an acre at the BLM’s December 2018 auction. 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 River through Labyrinth Canyon as scenic and wild river.