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Judge Blocks Oil and Gas Exploration in Southern Utah

Environmentalists say search would harm area. The ruling could affect Bush's energy initiatives.

November 01, 2002|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has temporarily blocked the Interior Department from permitting oil exploration on thousands of acres of public wilderness on the eastern boundary of Utah's Arches National Park, a setback for the Bush administration's drive to expand oil and gas exploration in southern Utah and throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

The ruling Wednesday in Washington by U.S. District Judge James Robertson temporarily halted plans by WesternGeco, a major seismic exploration company, to search for oil and gas in the Dome Plateau region, a 23,000-acre expanse of wilderness popular with hikers and mountain bikers and home to the black-footed ferret, Mexican spotted owl and other endangered species.

Robertson agreed with environmental groups that brought the suit that the use of huge seismic "thumper trucks" to search for underground oil and gas reserves would irreparably harm the fragile soils, plants and animals as well as the area's visual beauty. But while giving the groups more time to argue that the exploration permits were granted in violation of federal environmental law, the judge warned that "the plaintiffs' ultimate success on the merits appears questionable."

The administration is mulling dozens of proposals to drill on public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah in the wake of the Senate decision this year to reject President Bush's plan for drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The outcome of legal challenges in Utah and elsewhere could have a profound impact on the administration's energy initiatives.

"There's no doubt it's an uphill battle any time you challenge a federal agency," said Stephen Bloch, a lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a plaintiff in the suit. "But I think once we have an opportunity to present our case fully on the merits, I think we will be successful -- and a favorable decision could have very serious but positive ramifications for us in these other cases."

Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the House Resources Committee and an administration ally, called the court ruling "discouraging but not surprising."

"These environmental extremists are opposed to virtually all energy development," Hansen said.

Interior Department spokesman John Wright said: "Out of precaution the court has granted the preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. We don't believe that the plaintiffs can make their case."

Southern Utah, with its vast stretches of scenic red rock canyons and fragile wilderness areas, has become the central battleground in the controversy over the administration's energy policies.

Since Bush took office, at least nine seismic oil and gas exploration projects have been started or completed in southern Utah, environmentalists say, a marked increase in activity from previous years.

A Jan. 4 memorandum from the Bureau of Land Management to its field offices said the administration "has assigned a high priority to oil and gas exploration and production in this country," and spelled out dozens of ways to expedite permit applications for energy exploration in Utah. "Utah needs to ensure that existing staff understand that when an oil and gas lease parcel or when [a permit application] comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority," the memorandum said.

For more than a decade, Congress has considered legislation to designate more than 9 million acres of southern Utah as wilderness areas off limits to development. Although the bill has almost 170 House co-sponsors, Utah lawmakers and western property interests and industry have kept it bottled up.

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