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PUBLIC LANDS: Utah county sues for access to energy 'treasure chest'

October 7, 2010
In The News
Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Land Letter

The "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act," which would preserve 9.4 million acres of pristine land across eastern Utah, isn't supported by a single member of the state's congressional delegation and might never be approved by Congress.

But Uintah County leaders say the federal government is preventing them from tapping the vast oil and gas reserves beneath a 385,000-acre section of public land within the proposed wilderness boundaries, effectively removing the land from development.

The northeast Utah county this week sued the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management, seeking to force BLM to open up the contested land to oil and gas drilling.

In a 35-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, the county argues that BLM has ignored its 2008 resource management plan (RMP) for the Uintah region, a document that makes clear that most of the land in question is "classified for oil and gas and other extractive management."

A lawsuit filed by Uintah County, Utah, against the Interior Department alleges the federal government is illegally withholding federal lands in the county from oil and gas development. Photo courtesy of Uintah County.

"Once the BLM makes a determination about which lands should be in production and which lands should not, then they need to follow that," said Mark Ward, senior policy analyst and public lands counsel for the Utah Association of Counties, which plans to file legal briefs in support of the lawsuit.

In Uintah County, where at least half the jobs are tied to the oil and natural gas drilling sector, the issue is a matter of survival, said County Commissioner Mike McKee.

McKee blames tough federal conservation measures enacted under the Obama administration for scaring off drillers and contributing to the county's highest unemployment rate in the state last year. In 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, the county had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, he said.

"From our point of view, this lawsuit is about jobs and protecting our way of life," McKee said.

He added: "The Red Rock wilderness proposal has never passed Congress. It is a special interest group proposal, nothing more. Yet it has been inserted into BLM management documents, contrary to law. And those areas in the Red Rock are being held up and energy development is not being allowed to happen. That's wrong."

Kendra Barkoff, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's press secretary, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. David Quick, a BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C., also declined to comment.

But Utah environmental groups say they are outraged by the lawsuit, noting that it comes amid heavy oil and gas development in the Uintah Basin.

BLM is reviewing four large development proposals in the basin that, if approved, could allow for the drilling of more than 17,000 new natural gas wells across thousands of acres of federal land in the county. The largest of these is the Greater Chapita Wells Natural Gas Infill Project, which would place up to 7,028 wells across more than 40,000 acres of mostly BLM land (Land Letter, Sept. 30).

"It's really quite outrageous," said Steve Bloch, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which plans to intervene in the lawsuit on Interior's behalf.

"It's a very parochial view of the world," Bloch added. "The folks who brought this suit, who agitated for this suit, have obviously lost sight that these are public lands that are managed by the Interior Department for all Americans, and that wilderness is on equal footing with oil, natural gas and other developments."
Frustration with agencies

But in rural Western counties like Uintah, which has long wrestled with the federal government over land rights, the lawsuit is viewed by many as the only recourse against federal agencies placing too many restrictions on federal lands.

Western Republicans have been in an uproar since February when portions of a draft Interior document identifying 14 sites for new or expanded national monument designations leaked and was then widely circulated on Capitol Hill, fueling speculation that President Obama would use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate new wilderness areas without congressional consent.

The Congressional Western Caucus, chaired by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), in August obtained the full draft of the memo, which revealed that BLM considers up to 140 million acres of land -- more than half of the 264 million acres it manages -- as "treasured lands" that could be eligible for conservation restrictions (Land Letter, Aug. 12).

Bills filed in the last six months by lawmakers from California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Utah seek to check the president's authority to create new national monuments by requiring congressional approval for all such designations (Land Letter, March 4).

In a report released last week entitled "The War on Western Jobs," Bishop and Sen. John Barrasso, (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Western Caucus, argued that "Washington's misguided policies," including restricting "access to America's vast reserves of affordable oil and natural gas," have contributed to the highest regional unemployment rate in the nation for the past year.

"This Administration's anti-business, anti-multiple use agenda threatens Western communities," states the 25-page report. "It is killing jobs and undermining state and local budgets."

The GOP leadership has a particular dislike for the Red Rock wilderness bill, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), which would raise the protective status for portions of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as well as areas adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Land Letter, Oct. 1, 2009).

Indeed, a major issue raised in the Uintah County lawsuit is BLM's alleged failure to adhere to a 2003 settlement agreement between then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) stating that BLM would not designate additional wilderness study areas or treat existing proposed wilderness as de facto wilderness.

County officials maintain that by closing off most of the 385,000 acres to oil and gas drilling, BLM is essentially treating the lands as wilderness, thus violating the 2003 agreement. "The BLM made a solemn promise in this settlement," said Ward of the Utah Association of Counties.
Eminent domain

Meanwhile, Utah leaders continue to seek other legal avenues to challenge the federal government's autonomy over public lands.

Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in March signed a bill authorizing the state to use eminent domain authority to take federal land away from BLM and other agencies, including parcels designated as national monuments and landmarks (Land Letter, April 1).

A potential first target could be Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, established by President Clinton in 1996 over the objection of many Utah leaders.

State Rep. Chris Herrod (R), who sponsored the House version of the eminent domain bill, said the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument sits atop massive coal reserves worth an estimated $1 trillion. He wants to see some of that resource opened up for development.

McKee, the Uintah County commissioner, said his county has a similar "treasure chest" of natural resources buried underground, noting that 57 percent of the natural gas produced in Utah comes from Uintah Basin wells.

"This is a real-life struggle," added Ward. "This is grim. Companies can't handle it anymore. They're opting for Texas or for other non-public lands, and this has created a real economic slowdown."

Click here to read the "War on Western Jobs" report.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.