Groups suing BLM for decision to open lands for oil shale, tar sands leasing

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Groups suing BLM for decision to open lands for oil shale, tar sands leasing
By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
May 25th, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY — More than a half dozen conservation and environmental groups are suing the Bureau of Land Management over the agency's March decision to potentially allow oil shale and tar sands development in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

“The Colorado River has nothing left to give, and it’s not in the public interest to allow water-guzzling mining projects to mangle and pollute the productivity of this vital watershed any further,” said John Weisheit, Living Rivers’ conservation director.

Moab-based Living Rivers is one of seven groups contesting the long-awaited decision by BLM that overall sharply reduced the amount of acreage available, disappointing industry and community officials as well.

Under a 2008 plan subsequently challenged by environmental groups, up to 2 million acres would have potentially been available to leasing. That number was reduced to 678,000 acres in the three states for oil shale and left open 132,137 acres in Utah for tar sands.

Still, the groups say the BLM violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act because its latest decision fails to adequately contemplate impacts that would result to a variety of sensitive or endangered species.

While the plans for potential oil shale and tar sands development have restrictions for construction activity, disturbance of river channels and other projects' impacts dealing with a wide variety of plants and animals, the groups say those provisions do not go far enough.

The BLM has countered that determining the full extent of what species would be impacted and how those effects could be mitigated is a step that it takes once any actual development is slated to potentially happen. Opening up the lands for leasing, the agency has noted, does not guarantee any industry activity — even disturbance of the ground is prohibited before a separate review takes place. Doing a review so early, it added, would be an analysis based largely on speculation.

But the groups say the agency is obligated to thoroughly scrutinize the consequences that could unfold in such a vital region — or it is embarking down a road of public policy that is neither safe nor sustainable.

“This plan threatens to industrialize backcountry, pollute air and water, destroy habitat, and commit the Colorado River Basin to an even drier future," said Taylor McKinnon, director of energy with the Grand Canyon Trust.