Sunday, January 18, 2009

Preserving The Environment—Utah's Great Landscapes Get A Reprieve

Buried on page A16 of today's New York Times was a story about a controversial effort by the Interior Department to open up thousands of acres of land in Utah to oil and natural gas exploration. Needless to say, environmentalists raged against. If loving and building a life's leisure and sports activities around America's magnificent natural landscapes makes one an "environmentalist," then tens of thousands of everyday citizens were also adamantly and vocally opposed to the transfer of land leases to energy companies.

For now the viewsheds of Arches National Park, near Moab, and Nine-Mile Canyon are safe, but the reprieve could be brief. When our natural legacies are at issue, we must consider the long view. The judge in the case considered the potential for irreparable damage to the natural resources. We can only hope for the continued diligence of environmental researchers and lawyers, and the judges who preside over cases involving our natural heritage.

11th-Hour Ruling Blocks Utah Oil and Gas Leases

A federal judge on Saturday blocked oil and natural gas exploration on tens of thousands of acres of federal land in Utah, saying in an 11th-hour decision that the Interior Department had not done sufficient environmental analysis, particularly of how air quality might be degraded.

The decision by the judge, Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington, granted a temporary restraining order sought by seven environmental groups to prevent oil and gas companies from taking possession of leases they had purchased Dec. 19.

The Bureau of Land Management could have cashed the checks from the winning bidders on Monday; at that point the leases would have become final.

The number of tracts available for lease in Utah had been reduced by the bureau late last fall after the National Park Service objected to plans to lease hundreds of acres near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

But the scaled-back proposal still included land within sight of the parks, as well as land in and around Nine Mile Canyon, an area with well-preserved pre-Columbian rock art.

“Because of the threat of irreparable harm to public land if the leases are issued,” Judge Urbina wrote, “the balancing of equities also tips in favor” of the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit.

Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that sued, said in an e-mail message, “The judge’s order saves some of the most spectacular landscapes in the nation — lands within a stone’s throw of two national parks — from being turned into oil and gas fields.”

Kathleen Sgamma, the government affairs director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said the decision was “a setback for energy security.”
“We feel adequate analysis and protections were in place,” Ms. Sgamma added.