Last winter, just two days before the Christmas holiday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) quietly approved a controversial helium exploration and drilling project at the edge of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness—one of the wildest and most scenic redrock landscapes in Utah.

As reported by the New York Times, the project constituted a last-minute gift to the industry of such perceived importance that “with time running out on the Trump administration, senior Interior Department officials were so determined to see the permit approved that they took control of the project from the local Utah [BLM] office.”

The project rightfully received fierce opposition from the public and from redrock champions Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and several of their congressional colleagues. They demanded that then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reject the controversial project and cancel the underlying lease. Nonetheless, in its unwavering fidelity to “energy dominance,” the Trump Interior Department ignored the public and approved the proposal to industrialize a crown jewel of Utah’s redrock wilderness.

The controversial helium well trump’s BLM rushed to drill at the edge of the Labyrinth Canyon wilderness proved to be a bust. Our work to protect this extraordinary area from further abuse continues. © Ray Bloxham/SUWA

The project—known as the Twin Bridges Bowknot Helium Project—highlights everything that was wrong with the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda: it involved hasty decision-making, inadequate analysis, lack of public participation, and a complete disregard for the irreplaceable environmental values threatened by leasing and development.

SUWA rushed to federal court in Washington, DC to protect this remarkable landscape and initially won a two-week pause on all drilling and development activities. Unfortunately, the court eventually gave Twin Bridges the green light to proceed and the company built the well pad and began drilling only a few days before Trump left office.

The drilling came up empty, or in industry parlance, it turned out to be a “dry hole.” This result is unsurprising since all past drilling attempts (80 in total) in this region have likewise failed. SUWA’s litigation in DC continues to move forward to protect the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness from any additional abuse and development. Stay tuned for future updates.

—Landon Newell

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2021 issue)