SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - The Secretary of the Interior illegally approved tens of thousands of acres of "wilderness-caliber" lands in southwest Utah for natural gas drilling, four environmental groups claim in Federal Court.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club also sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and its Utah state director, Juan Palma.
The area at stake, bounded to the east by the Green River, is the Uinta Basin's transition to the Tavaputs Plateau.
Forty thousand acres of it are of "wilderness caliber," but the defendants approved Gasco Energy's application to drill in the "wild and remote places," despite a defective environmental impact statement, the environmentalists say.
Gasco Energy is a not a party to the lawsuit.
"The Gasco project area's eastern boundary is defined by the Green River," the complaint states. "The southern boundary extends to the head of Desolation Canyon, Nine Mile Canyon, and the Bad Land Cliffs. These wild and remote places mark the Uinta Basin's transition to the Tavaputs Plateau.
"Tens of thousands of acres of the southern and southeastern portion of the Gasco project area are undeveloped and wild. The BLM has determined that approximately 40,000 acres within the Gasco project area are wilderness-caliber lands.
"The Gasco project area provides important habitat for several big game species, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The project area also provides habitat for imperiled species such as greater sage grouse, Mexican spotted owl, and several federally protected plant species.
"Despite the wild character of a substantial portion of the Gasco project area, the greater Uinta Basin where the project is located experiences some of the nation's worst wintertime ozone pollution levels. The Gasco EIS acknowledges that the levels of ozone and fine particulates-both serious pollutants regulated under the Clean
Air Act-in the Uinta Basin, frequently exceed federal and state air quality standards.
Much of the air pollution problem in the Uinta Basin is attributable to oil and gas development.
"BLM's approval of the Gasco project violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which is intended to force federal agencies to 'think first, then act.' NEPA is also intended to provide federal agencies and the public with the best available information in order to produce fully informed, if not environmentally sound, decisions.
"BLM's decision has turned this principle on its head by approving the Gasco project without fully evaluating impacts to a host of issues beforehand and without providing information about a host of key issues.
"BLM's lack of analysis will result in serious consequences. One of the nation's worst ozone pollution problems will be aggravated as the result of this shortsighted analysis. Cumulative impacts have not been treated seriously or, with regard to certain resources, not considered at all. Furthermore, one of the nation's most remote places will be compromised and lost to oil and gas development.
"The BLM's approval of this project should be reversed, the BLM's reliance on the Gasco EIS and Gasco record of decision (ROD) enjoined, and the matter remanded to the agency for further proceedings."
The environmentalists are represented by Liz Thomas, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.