Judge taps brakes on drilling in Utah wilderness on eve of federal OK

Construction crews are poised to start work in the newly designated wilderness preserve but a judge will decide whether they can fire up their engines.

(Courtesy photo by Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) An energy company hoped to begin drilling for helium starting Wednesday on this site in the newly designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness. Environmentalists have gone to court to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from approving the Bowknot helium project, proposed by Twin Bridges Resources.

Labyrinth Canyon is among Utah’s most quiet and remote red rock locales, where the Green River has incised deep into the San Rafael Desert, leaving a broad loop in the river channel called Bowknot Bend.

Congress saw fit to designate wilderness here last year, but two energy companies with backing from the U.S. Interior Department are pursuing plans that critics say make a mockery of the whole idea of wilderness preservation.

On Wednesday, construction crews were expected to rumble into newly designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, where a company called Twin Bridges Resources and its partner had hoped to start drilling the moment the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approves the Bowknot helium project.

But a federal judge tapped the brakes Tuesday after hearing objections from several environmental groups led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). While the ruling from Judge Rudolph Contreras allows the BLM to approve the helium project on Wednesday as planned, he instructed the various parties to brief him and return to court Jan. 6 where he will weigh whether the project should be allowed to proceed.

The drilling site would be located at the end of an existing road in the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, yet carefully excluded from the wilderness area in a cartographic trick known as “cherry stemming.” Prompting SUWA and its allies to sue was the BLM’s decision to issue a lease there, just days before it was designated wilderness last year, followed by expedited approval of the drilling program.

“The whole thing was gamed by the BLM and the operators to make it difficult to challenge and the judge saw that,” SUWA staff attorney Landon Newell said.

Denver-based Twin Bridges Resources acquired a 1,410-acre federal lease as Congress was considering the wilderness designation, which became final when President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in March 2019. The company had previously secured leases on two nearby state trust sections, also on land inside the wilderness boundaries.

With those three leases in place, Twin Bridges holds a “valid preexisting right” to extract their minerals, which can be accomplished through directional drilling from outside the wildernesses boundaries on the cherry-stemmed roads, according to the Interior Department’s response to the SUWA petition.

Even so, the law does allow Twin Bridges to perform earth-disturbing work on the lease, but it is minimizing its impact by consolidating all its drilling, potentially up to seven wells, to a single well pad off the lease on an existing road, the department’s lawyers wrote.

At issue in the suit is the BLM’s fast-tracked environmental assessment, which is to be released Wednesday along with a decision to authorize rights of way, upgrade the road and develop the drill pad. The BLM expects to approve a drilling permit to bore a directional well to the state lease, but it is not yet considering a permit to drill to the federal lease, according to a declaration filed by Roger Bankert, the BLM’s Vernal field office manager.

Although the Price BLM field office conducted the environmental assessment, final decision authority has been given to Bankert, even though the project is not part of the Vernal office’s management area.

In August, Aspect Energy, a global energy company with offices in Denver, acquired an 88% interest in the Bowknot project. According to court papers, Aspect is now leading efforts to begin site work this week in hopes of completing an exploratory well before a seasonal drilling restriction takes effect March 1.

Aspect Energy’s involvement in the project was not disclosed in the draft environmental assessment and only became public Monday when it filed papers with the court seeking to intervene in SUWA’s lawsuit.

The environmental review has been fraught with irregularities, according to environmental groups, which allege Interior Department officials intervened to speed up the approval process so it would be finalized before President-elect Joe Biden’s conservation-minded administration is installed Jan. 20.

Meanwhile on Monday, a group of seven U.S. senators singled out the Bowknot lease in a letter calling on Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to cancel more than 500 oil and gas leases issued in Utah between 2014 and 2018, most of them on Trump’s watch. Led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the senators claimed the leases were offered without sufficient analysis of their climate impacts.

“The Bureau issued [the Bowknot] lease without allowing for public participation and without preparing analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act,” the letter states. “Federal courts have held that such actions violate the law.”

The Dingell Act designated 17 wilderness areas in Emery County and added 49 miles of the Green River, including the stretch through Labyrinth Canyon, to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“This remote stretch of desert river is one of the most famous in our nation due to its solitude, rich cultural history, and unmatched scenic beauty — values enjoyed by thousands of Americans every year,” the letter states. “The proposed development will destroy [what] Congress sought to protect when it created the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness.”

But the lease in question also accesses “a nationally significant reservoir” of helium containing up to 20 billion cubic feet of the inert gas that has been identified as a “critical element” vital to the nation’s security and economic future, according to Utah state officials. The United States uses about 1.4 billion cubic feet a year for various medical and research applications requiring supercool temperatures, mostly in magnetic resonance imaging.

“Development of the Bowknot Project would help domestic industries meet their helium needs for years to come and reduce the United States’ overall need to depend on foreign-sourced helium,” wrote Kathleen Clarke, Gov. Gary Herbert’s public lands adviser, in Utah’s official comments. “Utah communities would directly benefit through the Bowknot Project by receiving tax revenues, high paying jobs and economic development.”

According to Aspect’s court filing, the project would support 250 contract position and employ 14 people on site and generate between $36 million and $182 million in federal and state royalties. Clarke’s estimates were even more generous, claiming the project would “generate” more than 700 jobs and $250 million to $575 million in state and federal revenue.

“Timely approval of the Bowknot Project would provide an opportunity for people to get back to work immediately and provide economic stimulus for Utah’s economy for years to come,” Clarke wrote.

The project would also degrade for generations, if not forever, a scenic wilderness on the edge of sandstone canyon, according to SUWA’s field director Ray Bloxham.

“The landscape will be dominated by acres of denuded and disturbed lands and industrial infrastructure. The upgraded road will introduce heavy truck traffic, drill rigs, and increased motorized visitation,” Bloxham wrote in his court declaration.

“The development activities will industrialize this wild place. The 150[-foot] drill rig will be visible for miles, as will the 10-acre processing facility. The scars from burying the pipelines, widening and graveling of roads, and well pad construction will remain visible for decades,” he charged.