Court Blocks Drilling Set to Begin in Newly Designated Utah Wilderness

Dec 22nd, 2020 Written by suwa


Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 428-3991,
Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 859-1552,
Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518,
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2424,
John Weisheit, Living Rivers, (435)-260-2590,

Washington, D.C. (December 22, 2020) — A federal judge today enjoined the Trump administration’s approval of a plan to punch a helium well into the heart of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness in Utah just two days before Christmas. Road construction had been set to begin Wednesday.

“Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness is too special to drill,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “We’re grateful the court enjoined this ill-conceived project and gave this incomparable landscape a brief reprieve. We’ll be ready for round 2 with the Trump administration and company in early January.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity, and Living Rivers sought a temporary restraining order to stop the Bureau of Land Management from granting approval to Twin Bridges to begin drilling the helium well pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed last week. The lawsuit says the Bureau violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to take a hard look at the potential climate harms from the fracking project and failing to provide a reasoned basis for offering this land for leasing in the first place.

“The Bureau of Land Management tried to pull a fast one in racing this permit out,” said Josh Axelrod, senior advocate for the Nature Program at NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council). “But this unique wilderness area should never have been on the table for development, and we’ll fight to make sure it’s protected.”

The Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness includes one of the country’s most iconic and world-renowned stretches of river canyon. This national treasure is bounded on the east by the Green River and on the south by Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019 secured its permanent protection as wilderness. (See photos here.)

This dangerous drilling would destroy what Congress sought to protect by designating the spectacular Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness,” said Taylor McKinnon, senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re pleased the court stopped this project for now, but we won’t rest until this reckless plan is canceled entirely.” 

Twin Bridges had planned to break ground on the project Wednesday, but today’s order from U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras enjoins any further action on the plan until at least Jan. 6, pending resolution of the lawsuit.  

“Today’s order validates the importance of taking the courageous step of protecting the treasured landscapes of Utah’s canyon country,” said John Weisheit, conservation director with Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper. “We appreciate the opportunity that Judge Contreras has afforded us to hear our critical case at the upcoming hearing.” 


The Bureau of Land Management formally issued a lease to Twin Bridges Resources, LLC in February 2019, only a few weeks before the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which created the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness, became law. The agency rushed to close the deal knowing the area was about to be permanently closed to future leasing and development. The Bureau had been racing ahead to approve the company’s proposal to drill on its federal lease and a nearby state lease just before the Christmas holiday.

The proposed helium operation will industrialize one of the most remote areas of southeastern Utah’s red rock country. If the plan is approved, Twin Bridges will drill up to seven wells, permanently disturbing 43 acres in this remote and austere landscape and forever diminishing the unique wilderness values found in the area. The project will also involve road grading, construction of three separate pipelines, construction of a 10-acre processing facility and increased vehicle traffic.


Plaintiffs SUWA, the Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers are represented by Landon Newell, Joseph Bushyhead, and Stephen Bloch with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and William Eubanks II and Nick Lawton with Eubanks & Associates, PLLC. Plaintiff NRDC is represented by Sharon Buccino with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The case is captioned Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Bernhardt, 1:20cv3654 RC (D.D.C.).