Feds uphold controversial Trump-era oil and gas leases in Utah wilderness

The Bureau of Land Management reviewed the leases after they were challenged by environmental groups.

Labyrinth Canyon in southeastern Utah is renowned for its majestic red rock cliffs carved by the Green River — so much so that Congress decided the area merited a wilderness designation in 2019.

But just weeks before that designation took effect, the Bureau of Land Management leased land within the soon-to-be Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness Area for a helium drilling project. Though wilderness designations bar new development, preexisting leases are grandfathered in.

Environmentalists sued the BLM, arguing that the agency rushed through the leasing process and environmental review to allow drilling on the land. Under President Joe Biden, the BLM agreed to review that lease and 76 others issued by the Trump administration in Emery County.

Now the agency has upheld most of its previous decisions by reaffirming 51 oil and gas leases, including the helium well.

“This decision doubles down on one of the most controversial oil and gas leases issued during the Trump era,” said Landon Newell, a staff attorney for the environmental nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“It’s baffling to see the Biden administration give its blessing to a leasing decision so rushed and poorly conducted that it garnered national media attention and a groundswell of opposition,” he continued.

The area has historically not been productive for oil and gas development. There have been 79 wells drilled in the area, according to the BLM, and most of them were dry.

“Due to the extreme exploratory nature and past unsuccessful attempts,” the agency’s environmental assessment for this decision says, “it is anticipated that all wells drilled have a high probability of being a dry hole.”

There are a few reasons why the agency will designate an area open and available for leasing even if its mineral potential is unknown or unrealized, said Angela Wadman, fluid minerals branch chief for the BLM in Utah.

“As technology develops and continues to become more efficient,” she said, “there are areas that may not have seen any development in the past that may have development in the future with the new technology.”

“This area may or may not have helium, and that’s where I think the industry is interested in reevaluating,” Wadman added.

Ultimately, the BLM found that potential impacts from developing the 51 leases were either low intensity or could be addressed with targeted actions, like site-specific environmental reviews, Wadman said.

Newell disagreed: “There is no possibility, or extremely low possibility, that any benefit will come back to the American public from the issuance of these leases,” he said.

The controversial lease for helium production is currently held by Pure Helium LLC, a subsidiary of Aspect Holdings LLC, an investment firm with offices in Colorado, Florida and Budapest.

In 2019, the BLM issued the lease to Twin Bridges LLC, a Denver company. Twin Bridges drilled an exploratory well on the land, which the BLM confirmed was a dry hole in 2021.

Wadman confirmed that Pure Helium has not yet applied to try again. If it applies to drill, the BLM will review the environmental impacts, which would include a public comment period.