Ray Bloxham, SUWA
SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple environmental groups are challenging the federal government's approval of the Gasco drilling project in the Uintah Basin, asserting it will cause irreparable harm to the Desolation Canyon area.
"This is a drastic expansion of drilling in Utah’s proposed Desolation Canyon wilderness and frankly, it was a terribly misguided decision by the Department of the Interior,” said Sharon Buccino, director of Natural Resources Defense Council's Land and Wildlife program.
“Beyond threatening a remarkable landscape, this approval will aggravate the Uintah Basin’s serious ozone pollution levels — levels which right now are once again spiking well above federal standards. Americans hunger for wild lands, not another industrialized spot with bad air.”
The National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed the suit in challenge to a June 2012 decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to approve the Gasco natural gas project.
At the time of the decision, Salazar said the Gasco project represented the essence of President Obama's energy strategy, which combines extraction of natural resources with protection of the environment.
Both Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management noted that the approved project was significantly reduced from what the company had initially proposed.
Under that plan, there would have been nearly 1,500 gas wells and the same number of well pads, with a total disturbance area of 7,533 acres, including well pads in Nine Mile Canyon north of Desolation Canyon.
The final plan, however, allows a maximum of 1,298 wells that will be drilled from no more than 575 well pads. Surface disturbance was reduced by one-half to 3,600 acres, or about 2 percent of the total development area of 206,826 acres. The plan also incorporated directional drilling to reduce surface impacts.
But groups contend the impacts are still too great and the Interior Department failed to follow environmental laws when it approved the project.
“Desolation Canyon and Nine Mile Canyon along the Green River are some of the wildest places left in Utah, and they should be protected from drilling,” said Nada Culver, director and attorney for the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “The Interior Department’s decision to permit the drilling of 215 new oil and gas wells in this remarkable region is simply unacceptable, especially when there are other, better alternatives for this project.”
The groups noted, too, that another branch of the federal government — the Environmental Protection Agency — weighed in with its own concerns over the project's impact to air quality and groundwater, urging support of an alternative proposal that would not impact the Desolation Canyon wilderness area.
“The Interior Department should have followed the Environmental Protection Agency proposal to reduce the project’s footprint and protect the Desolation Canyon wilderness, while still allowing the company to develop its leases,” said Stephen Bloch, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“By bowing to the company’s proposal, Secretary Salazar put one company’s profits above the protection of this world-class landscape. Americans are worse off because of this short-sighted decision.”
W. King Grant, CEO of the Colorado-based company, has said environmental groups are perpetuating the misconception that drilling will occur in Desolation Canyon, when the actual project area will be six miles from the northern edge of the Canyon. The BLM, too, has said no drilling activity will take place within five miles of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area.
In their suit, the groups claims that the BLM "failed to take a hard look at impacts of the Gasco project — including direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts — on air quality, soil instability and dust generation, climate change, sage grouse, vegetation, wildlife, recreation, and other resources."
In its failure to do that, the groups contend the federal agency is ignoring the long-range and significant impacts, such as worsened air quality in an already heavily polluted area.