This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Once again, opposing camps in Utah's energy-development debate say the Bureau of Land Management got a proposed lease sale wrong.
Wilderness advocates contend at least 27 federal parcels of the 69 authorized for agency's Nov. 18 sale should not be leased because they encroach on scenic lands that are vital to both wildlife conservation and recreation. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) also argues rampant oil and gas drilling is degrading air quality in the Uinta Basin.
Meanwhile, Uintah County and an energy trade group have upbraided the BLM from the opposition direction, arguing the agency is improperly withholding dozens of parcels industry "nominated" for leasing in the agency's Green River district, covering Carbon, Emery, Duchesne and Uintah counties.
The BLM said the proposed leases targeted by a SUWA protest filed Monday carry environmental safeguards.
"The parcels remaining after a pre-leasing review and analysis have binding stipulations designed to protect resources and address issues raised in the protest," BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said.
SUWA's filing raises concerns about a fresh round of leasing near Nine Mile and Desolation canyons and the White River. These parcels are in or beside areas proposed for protection under America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.
"They are offering parcels on two of Utah's greatest rivers, the Green and the White. Both are on the border between wilderness and development," SUWA lawyer David Garbett said. "They would be pushing development into areas that are wilderness-quality, spectacular landscapes."
Joined by four other groups, SUWA also contends BLM should limit leasing inside the sprawling Gasco project area straddling the Duchesne-Uintah county line.
The Environmental Impact Statement for this project required BLM to perform additional analysis should the Uinta Basin's air quality worsen, according to Steve Bloch, SUWA's legal director. Since then, there have been winter violations of the federal ozone standard, yet BLM intends to lease 16 parcels in the Gasco fields.
"You need to fulfill commitments you have now before you go ahead and lease more lands inside [the Gasco project area]," Bloch said.
Two leases overlap with critical habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo, a migratory songbird proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. It nests along river corridors in the Southwest.
Of the 72,440 acres to be leased Nov. 18, SUWA wants 29,440 acres, or 41 percent, either put on hold or leased with stipulations that restrict surface occupancy.
But the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) claims BLM's own planning documents obligate the agency to lease the contested parcels and a lot more.
The Vernal and Price resource management plans say the parcels nominated by industry are on land available for leasing, but BLM declined all or parts of most because they overlap with sage grouse habitat or conflict with coal leases.
Across the West, BLM has "deferred" leasing decisions on 5.4 million acres of federal minerals, according to WEA governmental affairs director Kathleen Sgamma.
"Deferrals go into a black hole. Once it's deferred you have no certainty of when it's going to come out," Sgamma said. "Sometimes they don't give a reason. Sometimes they cite wilderness characteristics, a nebulous term that has no meaning in law."
Meanwhile, she disputed SUWA's rationale for deferring even more leases, pointing to lease stipulations that guide where drilling occurs and laws that protect non-energy resources.
"It's hard balancing act. We know we will never get 100 percent of what we want," Sgamma said.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee has argued these latest deferrals represent up to 5,000 potential oil and gas wells that could account for $60 billion in economic activity. But the SUWA-led group said BLM's decision whether to sell more leases will have minimal impact on industry, which enjoys a "glut" of federal leases totalling 4 million acres in Utah.
Environmentalists contested parcels proposed for lease at last year's auction in and around the scenic San Rafael Swell in Emery County. At the last minute, BLM yanked many of these parcels after a rock art research group pointed out they harbor cultural resources that have yet to be adequately inventoried.
WEA appealed BLM's reversal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which rejected the petition because the deferral was not a "final, appealable decision." The industry group has asked the board to reconsider this July 25 ruling.