Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Uintah Basin

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — The leadership of the Ute Indian Tribe announced Tuesday it will seek to join a federal lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management over the agency's new rules on hydraulic fracturing.

Calling the regulations "contrary to tribal interests," members of the Ute Tribe Business Committee said they must take a stand against the new BLM rules —slated to take effect Wednesday — or risk "irreversible damage to the tribe's economy."

"Tribes must be given an opportunity to regulate hydraulic fracturing on tribal lands in accordance with our own tribal policies and priorities," Business Committee Chairman Shaun Chapoose said.

The chairman said tribal officials, not the federal government, are the proper stewards of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation "because this is our homeland, and we live and work on these lands."

"With over 50 years of hydraulic fracturing operations on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, there has not been a single documented instance of groundwater contamination," Chapoose said. "This corresponds with findings in the recent EPA study assessing the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources."

The BLM said about 90 percent of wells drilled on federal and Native American lands across the U.S. use hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking." The agency's current regulations governing the practice of injecting a blend of water and compounds deep into the earth to loosen oil and gas reservoirs for extraction have not been updated since 1983.

Under the new rules, energy companies would be required to validate the integrity of their wells to protect groundwater sources; disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing through the FracFocus website within 30 days of completing their work; improve short-term storage of wastewater produced as part of the fracking operations; and take measures to decrease the risk of cross-well contamination.

Ute tribal leaders aren't alone in their criticism of the new rules, which they consider "a throwback to the old paternalistic policies of the federal government that completely disregard tribal interests." The leadership of the Southern Ute Tribe, based in Ignacio, Colorado, asked a federal judge last week to prevent the BLM rules from taking effect, claiming the new regulations infringe on tribal sovereignty.

Utah, Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming are also suing the BLM in federal court to stop implementation of the rules. In announcing Utah's entry into the fray in May, Gov. Gary Herbert said the practice of hydraulic fracturing should be regulated to protect the environment.

"However, adoption of the proposed (BLM) rule would create an inconsistent, costly and inefficient regulatory system that provides no additional environmental protection or public safety than is offered by programs already enforced by the state,” he said.

The new rule will cumulatively cost Utah as much as $243 million a year because individual well costs could reach more than $250,000 per well, Herbert said. The new rule will also result in a reduction in energy production on federal and tribal lands, according to the state's lawsuit, a decrease that will come without an environmental or administrative benefit.

"Utah has a strong regulatory system in place for oil and gas development, including hydraulic fracturing," Herbert said in May. "So far, there have been no instances of environmental damage in Utah related to the integrity of a well undergoing a hydraulic fracturing operation.

"This is yet another unfortunate example of federal regulatory overreach," the governor added. "The only thing this rule will achieve is more red tape, more delays, fewer jobs, and less revenue for both Utah and the federal treasury."

Ute tribal leaders in Fort Duchesne echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

"Infringing upon tribal sovereignty and placing significant roadblocks to the development of tribal minerals will undermine the federal trust responsibility and serve to limit economic development opportunities for the Ute Indian Tribe," Chapoose said.

"Tribes should be allowed to decide for themselves whether regulations governing hydraulic fracturing are necessary to protect tribal lands," he added. "It is not appropriate for the United States to determine for tribes what is in their best interests by setting forth one federal rule for all tribes."

Email: [email protected], Twitter: GeoffLiesik