Last year the BLM proposed to sell 57 oil and gas leases primarily located in Utah’s stunning San Rafael Swell. The leases would have green-lighted development on more than 80,000 acres of proposed wilderness, the vast majority of which the BLM itself acknowledges are wilderness-caliber landscapes. The leases would have also authorized surface activities in a culturally rich area and over the objections of The Hopi Tribe.
Hundreds of people wrote and emailed the BLM asking them to “think first and lease later.” More than 150 of you rallied at the BLM’s state headquarters in Salt Lake City and delivered this message personally. Thanks to your hard work that bad idea was tabled in the days leading up to the proposed sale and the leases were withdrawn from the sale.
But last week, an oil and gas trade group filed an appeal with the Interior Department seeking to overturn the BLM’s decision not to offer these leases. They were joined by a small oil and gas company that had hoped to buy some of these leases — so small, in fact, that they don’t operate a single well in Utah.
The gist of their appeal is that because the BLM initially made the (wrong) decision to offer these leases, it was required to do so no matter what kind of information the agency learned about the threats that development would pose to fragile cultural sites, threatened species, etc.
In other words, industry wants the good old days back of “lease first and think later.” Not a chance. SUWA and other conservation groups intend to intervene on behalf of the BLM and defend this important decision.
Today is a good day. Five years ago to this very date a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C. issued an order enjoining the Bush administration from issuing 77 oil and gas leases it sold in late December 2008 across several spectacular Utah red rock landscapes. Judge Ricardo Urbina’s decision, which was issued on Saturday, January 17, 2009 granted SUWA and its partners’ motion for a temporary restraining order and came literally at the 11th hour and only two days before the Bush administration left office.
The “it’s Christmas 2008, we’re going out of business and all our public lands must go” lease sale, as it’s variously been remembered, turned out to be a watershed moment in the Obama administration’s approach to oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Following Judge Urbina’s ruling and a decision by then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to formally withdraw the 77 leases from sale, the Interior Department began a top to bottom review of BLM’s oil and gas leasing program. That review culminated in new policies and programs that are intended to make sure BLM “thinks first, and leases later.”
One of these policies is BLM’s so-called “master lease plans” or MLPs which are intended to identify lands that will remain available for oil and gas leasing (and with the right stipulations) and which lands have other values that would be compromised by energy development (things like cultural resources, wildlife habitat, recreation, and wilderness). Think smarter zoning decisions that strive to reduce the level of conflict between the many competing uses of the public lands.
In Utah the first of these plans is being put together in the Moab area, which was ground zero for the December 2008 oil and gas lease sale. In typical BLM fashion nothing good comes easy and it’s taking a while to get this plan off the ground. We’re hopeful that the plans will better identify the places where oil and gas (and potash) leasing and development should and should not take place.
And how did it come to pass that there even was a December 2008 oil and gas “fire sale”? Just as it was leaving office, the Bush administration saddled Utah with six new land use plans (called resource management plans or RMPs) which made these kinds of bad leasing decisions possible. SUWA and its partners challenged those plans in court (as part of the same lawsuit that blocked the 77 leases). As many of you know this past fall we won a major victory when a federal judge held that several aspects of BLM’s Richfield RMP violated federal environmental and cultural preservation laws. We’re figuring out what that decision will mean on the ground – called the remedy stage of the litigation – and then will move onto challenging another one of the Bush RMPs.
But coming full circle – take a moment and revel in the key ruling we received five years ago. We couldn’t have done it without your help and support.
More great news! Wild lands in San Rafael Swell won’t be leased!
Today, the Bureau of Land Management made the right decision and dropped its plans to lease 80,000 acres of wilderness-caliber lands in the San Rafael Swell for oil and gas development.
The decision comes after an outpouring of public opposition. More than 5,000 citizens flooded the BLM with comments decrying BLM’s proposed lease sale. Another 200 packed the plaza outside the agency’s office during a rally in September. The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized against the sale, and publications around the country, including the New York Times, covered the controversy.
Citizens argued that the Swell – a geologic wonderland of majestic mesas, jagged cliff faces, twisting spires and hoodoos in south central Utah – is too precious to drill. The region has been proposed for protection as a national park, national monument, national conservation area, and wilderness. The Swell is a popular destination for hikers, canyoneers, bikers, jeepers, rock act aficionados, and anyone seeking to saturate their eyes with beauty.
Conservationists also argued that the lease sale was unnecessary. More than 3 million acres of BLM lands are already under lease in Utah but have not been developed.
SUWA, joined by a host of other conservation groups, filed a protest to the lease sale.
BLM’s decision means that the San Rafael Swell will be spared – for now – the presence of drill rigs, sprawling pipelines, road scars, gas flares, air pollution and the thump, thump, thumping of pumpers.
BLM made the right decision, and every citizen who wrote, spoke, rallied, or raised a sign encouraging them to do so deserves our thanks!
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH—The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and IACX Energy, Dallas, TX, announced today that they have reached an agreement regarding IACX’s planned helium development in Emery County, Utah. The agreement was reached in advance of any appeals or litigation and resolves concerns raised by SUWA regarding the impacts of development of the potential helium resource on the Lost Spring Wash proposed wilderness area.
“This agreement gives SUWA certainty about the impacts that helium development may have to the Lost Spring Wash proposed wilderness area,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “We appreciate that IACX was willing to sit down with us and negotiate an agreement that protects an important public landscape.”
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement with SUWA that allows IACX to proceed with this strategically important helium project. IACX appreciates that while the U.S. urgently needs more helium, developers must earn the social license to operate on federal lands. It made good business sense to listen to the many stakeholders who care about the management of these lands and find a middle ground that allows for the timely development of helium,” said Scott Sears, the company president. IACX uses proprietary processes to capture and purify helium at lower pressures and ambient temperatures. The company recently commenced operations on another helium project at Harley Dome, Utah.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is analyzing IACX’s proposal to drill a helium test well on a location previously disturbed by natural gas development. If successful, IACX hopes to drill two additional test wells in the vicinity. IACX’s activities are located in the Woodside Dome field and in an area that was classified as United States Helium Reserve #1 by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
Helium is an indispensable commodity for many high tech uses including MRI machines, semiconductor manufacturing, the NASA program and fiber optics.
As you have probably heard, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently announced its intention to sell 50 oil and gas leases covering more than 79,000 acres of proposed wilderness in the San Rafael Swell.
Now the race is on to let the BLM and the Obama administration know that some places are too precious to drill.
And here is one way you can help citizens who love the Swell win that race: attend the “Don’t’ Drill the San Rafael” rally on Monday, September 16, at Noon at the BLM Headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Last weekend I ran another race – an actual half marathon through the heart of the San Rafael.
I ran with almost all of my wife’s family, the eight of us ranging in age from 31-75. We all wore shirts proclaiming a message we thought would be self-evident to anyone running through the beauty of this sandstone paradise, “Don’t Drill the San Rafael.”
My wife’s family, which have roots in the local community of Castledale, introduced me to the San Rafael when I began dating her 20 years ago, and I’ve been back every year since.
The route for the race wound through the Buckhorn Wash, one of the places I love the best. Winding my way on foot along 13 miles of desert road, past massive red rock cliffs towering majestically against the blue sky, I wondered how we could ever imagine that the scant amount of oil underground was worth more than the beauty of this unmolested landscape.
It seemed unthinkable that this magnificent area, once vetted as a possible National Park, and more recently suggested for national monument designation by former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, should become nothing more than a drop of gas for our tanks.
This is especially true because there is no need to sell these particular leases. Oil and gas companies already hold leases on over 3 million acres of BLM land in Utah which they have yet to drill.
As the Salt Lake Tribune has editorialized, the larger problem behind this lease sale is the “resource management plans” adopted by the BLM under former President George W. Bush and which laid the groundwork for BLM to offer these leases – plans the Obama administration needs to overturn. As the proposed San Rafael lease sale demonstrates, these imbalanced plans throw Utah’s public lands open to oil and gas leasing without adequate regard for how energy extraction could harm scenic, recreation, archeological, wilderness and wildlife values.
Help us finish the race my family and I began last weekend. Come to the rally and let BLM — and the Obama administration — know that “we the people” will not allow a national treasure to be sacrificed for an unneeded and foolhardy drilling disaster.
Peter Danzig is an award winning musician and songwriter. He performs with his wife (and often his three daughters) as Otter Creek. You can read more about him on his blog at www.OtterCreekDuo.com or listen to Otter Creek’s version of Utah Slim’s anthem against drilling in the San Rafael.