BLM Recognizes it Violated Law, Pulls Back Oil & Gas Leasing Decision in Utah’s San Rafael Desert, Dirty Devil Region

Approximately 204,000 acres of remote, wild, and culturally significant public lands temporarily spared from oil and gas development
 

Contact: Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3981, steve@suwa.org
Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991, landon@suwa.org

Salt Lake City, UT (June 13, 2019): For the second time in less than two months, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has reluctantly recognized that its rushed “lease first, think later” mentality to oil and gas leasing and development violated the law. Earlier this week, the BLM informed the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) that the agency plans to revisit its decision to open up approximately 204,000 acres of public lands in Utah’s scenic San Rafael Desert and northern Dirty Devil region for oil and gas development. BLM’s decision is coming after it denied a protest by SUWA and other conservation groups over this lease sale and an appeal of BLM’s leasing decision being filed at the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA).

San Rafael Desert. Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA. Re-use with attribution permitted.

The San Rafael Desert and Dirty Devil region lies between Goblin Valley State Park and the newly designated San Rafael Reef Wilderness on the west and the Horseshoe Canyon component of Canyonlands National Park on the east. This is one of the sublime and least traveled areas of federal public lands in Utah. The majority of the leases pulled back by the BLM encompass lands identified by the BLM as possessing wilderness characteristics; that is, the BLM has determined that the lands appear natural and undisturbed and provide outstanding opportunities for solitude and unconfined primitive types of recreation such as hiking, wildlife viewing, and camping. Photographs of the San Rafael Desert are available here.

“It’s not surprising that BLM’s fire sale approach to oil and gas leasing is unlawful.” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Over the past two years Utah BLM has eagerly embraced this agenda by removing every obstacle to selling off as much federal public land as possible, as quickly as possible, and with as little analysis or public involvement as possible.”

This is the second time in less than two months that the BLM has been forced to pull back a leasing decision in Utah for violating federal environmental laws. Just last month the agency took similar steps to pull back a separate leasing decision made in March 2018 that involved public lands on the doorstep to Bears Ears National Monument and Canyonlands National Park. More information on that decision is available here. Notably, these two decisions by the BLM to pullback oil and gas leases are not isolated events. All of the agency’s leasing decisions in Utah over the past two years suffer from the same legal flaws that forced BLM to set-aside its leasing decisions in these instances. In other words, the agency will likely be forced to pullback hundreds of thousands of acres of oil and gas leases across Utah that it unlawfully offered and sold for development.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” said Landon Newell, Staff Attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “BLM has had its head stuck in the sand for two years, eagerly walking in lockstep with the Trump administration’s large-scale assault on our public lands. This ‘lease first, think later’ mentality has come back to haunt BLM.”

Over the past two years, the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda has suffered several significant legal setbacks. Of particular importance here, in March 2019 a federal judge in Washington, D.C., held that the BLM had failed to properly analyze the impacts of its oil and gas leasing program on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. This landmark decision requires the BLM–for the first time–to provide a detailed accounting of these impacts in each leasing decision. This decision spells trouble for all the Utah BLM’s leasing decisions over the past two years: the agency made the same unlawful mistake in each. SUWA has already filed the first of several court challenges to begin to overturn all these decisions. More information on SUWA’s filed lawsuit is available here.

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