Interior Department Halts Utah Oil Exploration

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, February 26, 2002 (ENS) - A controversial project to explore for oil in Utah's famed Dome Plateau was postponed Saturday night after a review by the Department of Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals. Conservation groups called for the review after learning that energy exploration had begun on the Plateau, a 23,000 acre area just north of Arches National Park that has been proposed for wilderness designation.

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Dome Plateau, looking toward Castleton Towers and the Lasals in Utah. (Photo by Tom Till, courtesy The Wilderness Society)
The Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) held that potential damage from seismic testing justified an immediate halt to the project. It also found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal environmental laws, as alleged by conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others.

Seismic testing, involving the use of 52,000 pound thumper trucks that roll across fragile desert soils and vegetation, had already begun in the area when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Wilderness Society, and the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club filed an appeal and request for stay with the Department of Interior.

The groups charged that the BLM did not prepare a thorough environmental review and instead fast tracked the project by issuing a review based on outdated information, ignoring exploration alternatives that are less damaging to the environment and omitting reports from other federal agencies that warned of potential damage.

OHA agreed with the environmental groups, stating in its order: "It appears likely that SUWA will be able to demonstrate that BLM's FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] was arbitrary and capricious and that BLM was required to prepare an environmental impact statement approving the WesternGeco project."

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A thumper truck makes its way up a wet hillside. (Three photos courtesy SUWA)
"SUWA has raised substantial questions concerning the range of alternatives analyzed in the EA [Environmental Assessment] and the reasonableness of BLM's decision to analyze only the posed action and a no action alternative," the review continues.

SUWA was delighted with the decision.

"We're thrilled with the ruling. BLM's shoddy environmental review reflected the interest of the oil companies and not the public," said Liz Thomas of SUWA. "The agency's single minded approach hurts the environment, hurts the American public and it even hurts oil companies when they are confronted with serious environmental problems posed by the permits."

The controversial project is one of many planned in the Moab region as the Bush administration intensifies oil and gas drilling on America's pristine public lands. Oil exploration and development are already underway in proposed Utah wilderness areas such as the Book Cliffs, Lockhart Basin and Comb Ridge.

Conservation groups charge that the Bush Administration's attempt to fast track oil and gas exploration and drilling at Dome Plateau is an example of a larger campaign to open up public lands to drilling without environmental impact reviews. SUWA recently released an internal BLM memo in which the Utah BLM received explicit direction from Washington that requests by oil companies to explore and drill on public lands should be the agency's "number one priority."

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One of the deep ruts left by energy exploration on Utah's Dome Plateau.
"Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understand that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when an application for permission to drill comes in the door, that this work is their No.1 priority," BLM supervisors wrote to field officers.

"This kind of fast tracking of decisions in favor of oil companies keeps the public out of the process and wreaks havoc on the few pristine landscapes we have left," said Joro Walker, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "So far, the BLM has shown itself incapable of balancing environmental protection with oil production."

"This ruling means that the destructive seismic testing has to stop now," said Johanna Wald, NRDC senior attorney. "Unfortunately, the damage already wreaked by thumper trucks to the fragile desert soil could take up to 300 years to heal fully, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. We're just glad we could stop it before it got any worse."

The three foot wide tires of thumper trucks destroy cryptobiotic soil crusts. According to an official BLM publication for recreationists, "This crust forms the foundation of our local ecosystem by keeping the desert floor in place."

"When disturbed, crushed or smothered by blowing sand, the critical cyanobacteria in the soil stops fixing nitrogen, and therefore, can no longer provide essential nutrients," the BLM wrote in its pamphlet. "Once the crust is gone, plants and animals cannot live here. We can't bring the crust back; we can only protect it so we don't create a wasteland. Avoid all cross country travel!"

Over the weekend, SUWA says, the group discovered that the BLM had covered up evidence of permit violations by WesternGeco, the oil company exploring the Dome Plateau. For example, while the permit directed the BLM to halt work if the enormous thumper trucks left more than four inch deep ruts in the ground, SUWA discovered 15 inch ruts that could increase the rate of soil erosion and environmental damage in the region.

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Heavy machinery traveling across the fragile desert landscape can demage ecosystems that take decades to recover.
According to the BLM permit stipulations for the project, "Geophysical operations will be suspended when ground conditions are wet enough to cause rutting or other noticeable surface deformation and severe compaction. As a general rule, if vehicles or other project equipment create ruts in excess of 4 inches deep when traveling cross country over wet soils, the soil shall be deemed too wet for the vehicles or equipment to be used."

SUWA charges that BLM workers raced to the area at first light on Saturday to fill in the ruts when they heard that a reporter would visit the area that day and that conservationists were gathering evidence in support of their stay request.

"The BLM should be embarrassed by its behavior. First they permit a destructive project to go ahead in violation of federal laws, then they cover it up," said Kevin Walker of the Sierra Club.