SUWA, Partners’ Appeal Stymies 175 Oil & Gas Drilling Permits in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon Region

The Trump administration’s rush for “energy dominance” encounters another setback in Utah; BLM forced to reanalyze environmental impacts of oil and gas development

For Immediate Release

Contact:
Landon Newell, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3991, landon@suwa.org
Ann Alexander, Natural Resources Defense Council, 415.875.8243, aalexander@nrdc.org
Phil Hanceford, The Wilderness Society, 303.225.4636, phil_hanceford@tws.org

Salt Lake City, UT (January 17, 2020): Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that it had withdrawn its approval of 175 controversial oil and gas drilling permits on public lands in the Desolation Canyon region of eastern Utah.

In September of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Horse Bench Natural Gas Development Project and the drilling of up to 175 natural gas wells on “Horse Bench,” a prominent prow of land overlooking Nine Mile Canyon and the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council, Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, and The Wilderness Society appealed the local BLM manager’s approval of this project to the Utah BLM state director. 

The conservation groups argued that the project, if implemented, would decimate greater sage-grouse habitat, destroy BLM-identified wilderness characteristics, and exacerbate the ongoing climate crisis—impacts that the BLM had failed to fully analyze. In his decision, the state director agreed, reversed the BLM’s drilling approvals, and ordered the agency to “complete additional [environmental] analysis.”  

“The Desolation Canyon region, one of Utah’s most remote areas, provides critical habitat for wildlife—including greater sage-grouse—as well as outstanding opportunities for hiking and camping, and evidence of a rich cultural history,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Without this victory, these values would have been lost to the sights and sounds of industrial development.” 

 The state director’s decision grants a reprieve to one of Utah’s wildest and most culturally significant landscapes. The BLM itself has recognized that the Desolation Canyon region at issue here is “one of the largest blocks of roadless BLM public lands within the continental United States.” 

“The original finding that plunking down 175 natural gas wells next to the Desolation Canyon wilderness would have no significant environmental impact was clearly out of whack with reality’” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. “The State Director did the right thing in setting it aside, which should lead to real scrutiny of the proposal.” 

“For far too long our public lands have been handed off to the oil and gas industry without any consideration for the enormous impacts of these decisions on our climate, wildlife and health,” said Phil Hanceford, Conservation Director at The Wilderness Society. “We welcome the BLM’s decision and hope the agency will move towards managing our public lands to be a key solution to climate change, not a growing contributor.”

In addition, the large industrial equipment required for this drilling project, including tanker trucks, drill rigs, and fracking equipment, would have passed through Nine Mile Canyon to access Horse Bench. Nine Mile Canyon is world-renowned for its remarkable density and diversity of prehistoric sites and artifacts—including petroglyphs and pictographs, kivas, and granaries—and is significant to several Native American tribes. The canyon also contains important historic sites, including evidence of the post-Civil War era Buffalo Soldiers and early settlers. The BLM has described the canyon as “the world’s longest art gallery” and an “outdoor museum.” Dust and pollution from passing trucks could harm these irreplaceable treasures, and proposed roads would make the area more accessible to vandals.

“Nine Mile Canyon is a cultural and archaeological treasure,” said Pam Miller, Director of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. “This victory goes a long way to protecting these world-class resources for future generations.” 

The BLM’s withdrawal this week of 175 oil and gas drilling permits is just the latest setback for the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda in Utah and nationally. Following several significant legal precedents, including a pivotal March 2019 federal court ruling, the BLM on four recent occasions has been forced to pull back oil and gas leasing decisions covering more than 328,000 acres of public lands in Utah due to inadequate environmental analyses (more about these decisions here). 

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