Environmental Group Challenges Feds on Oil and Gas Leasing in Utah

A conservation group says that the Bureau of Land Management rushed through a cultural and environmental analysis of an area that’s packed with archeological resources. 

One side of the “Birthing Scene” petroglyph near Moab, Utah. (Courthouse News photo / Kelsey Jukam)

(CN) — A conservation group sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in federal court Thursday, claiming the agency issued dozens of oil and gas leases without adequately considering the impact they would have on the more than 50,000 acres in Southeastern Utah that are jam-packed with archeological sites. 

“During the Trump Administration, there was a fire sale of lands throughout the West,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, which filed the lawsuit. “That included the most archeologically rich area of the United States.” 

The lawsuit claims the BLM rushed through its cultural and environmental analysis of the area before issuing the leases during two lease sales in 2018. What’s more, the agency failed to provide details about how they came to their conclusion. 

“They found that there were no adverse effects to the cultural resources,” Ewing said. “We contend that that’s not possible to do. There is no way that these cultural resources would not be damaged.”

Ewing says there’s a precedent: under the Obama administration, the agency had come to the opposite conclusion. 

Over 1,300 archeological sites have been documented in the leasing land, packed with 9,000-year old artifacts, petroglyphs and ancient roads, with hundreds more still uncovered. Excavation, dust, light pollution and looting would all irreparably damage the sites and landscapes, which are considered sacred to numerous indigenous tribes in the area, the lawsuit claims. 

Friends of Cedar Mesa first filed a lawsuit over two years ago in February 2019, but the case was dismissed after separate litigation regarding greenhouse gas emissions forced the BLM to suspend oil and gas leases for a year and half so that it could conduct additional environmental analysis. Now that the leases are out of suspension, the nonprofit group re-filed the case. 

Ewing says Friends of Cedar Mesa isn’t opposed to oil and gas development, but this specific area — packed with up to 100 archeological sites pers square mile — needs protection. 

“It’s not that every spot out there isn’t suitable for leasing,” said Jim Allison, a Brigham Young University archeologist that has worked extensively in the area. “But the big problem here is the basis of the lawsuit: the fact that the BLM doesn’t see leasing as an action for which they have to do the kinds of archeological studies that they are required to do.” 

Allison said that these decisions need to be made ahead of time: once a lease is there, there is an implied right to drill somewhere. 

“I’m uncomfortable with the idea of using archaeology as a roadblock for economic development,” said Allison. “I think it’s counterproductive to preservation in the long term if the local residents see it as an obstacle. But the BLM is legally required to take it into account.”

In 2019, the Trump administration sold another 50,000 acres of leases during two more sales, but the leases have yet to be finalized. So, under a Biden administration policy which pauses new oil and gas leases on federal lands, the 2019 Utah leases have been put on hold.

Friends of Cedar Mesa is working to fight the more recent leases through administrative processes, while trying to force the agency to backtrack on the already approved leases through litigation. 

A spokesperson for the BLM declined to comment on the pending litigation. 

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