Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration Leasing for Helium Drilling in Newly Designated Utah Wilderness

For Immediate Release

Contacts:

Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 428-3991, landon@suwa.org
Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, (801) 859-1552, steve@suwa.org
Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518, ahawke@nrdc.org
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2424, tmckinnon@biologicaldiversity.orgJohn Weisheit, Living Rivers, (435)-260-2590, john@livingrivers.org

Washington, D.C. (December 18, 2020) — Conservation groups have sued the Bureau of Land Management to challenge its illegal leasing of 1,400 acres for helium extraction within the newly designated Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness in southeastern Utah. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers filed suit Monday in federal district court.

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.)

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.

“This proposal is the paragon of the Trump administration’s ‘going out of business’ assault on the nation’s public lands, plain and simple,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This project would needlessly and permanently tarnish one of the Bureau of Land Management’s crown jewels: the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness.”

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. Now the Bureau is racing ahead to approve the company’s proposal to drill on its federal lease and a nearby state lease, and is poised to do so just before the Christmas holiday.

This afternoon the conservation groups filed a motion with the court seeking an emergency injunction to block the Bureau’s approval of the project until the merits of the lawsuit can be decided. “We’re hopeful that the court sees this last-minute maneuver by the Trump administration for what it is: a transparent attempt to destroy a piece of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness as they head out door,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“It’s truly stunning how brazen the Trump administration has been these past four years in serving up our pristine, iconic landscapes to industry,” said Josh Axelrod, Senior Advocate for the Land Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Its race to secure this project’s approval for the helium industry’s benefit is flatly illegal, and we’ll defend this special area at every turn.”

The Bureau offered the lease without allowing the public to review or comment on that decision and did not prepare site-specific analysis prior to offering the lease for development, as required by NEPA. Courts have found such restrictions on public participation and lack of analysis to be unlawful.

“This dangerous plan is an obscene, purposeful attack on Utah’s iconic public land and wilderness protection,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll do everything in our power to ensure that these lands never see the insult of this proposed extraction.”

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.

“This proposal is not appropriate because very reasonable alternatives do indeed exist,” said John Weisheit, Conservation Director of Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper. “Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe and it just doesn’t make sense to propose a trade-off that jeopardizes the sensitive lands and rivers of the Canyonlands region.”

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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.).

 

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