Bush Administration Christmas Gift to Oil Companies Will be Announced on Election Day

Date:   October 30, 2008
Contact:   Karen Hevel-Mingo, NPCA (801) 521-0785
Stephen Bloch, SUWA (801) 428-3981
Eric Young, NRDC (202) 289-2373
Suzanne Jones, TWS (303) 650-5818 x102

Bush Administration Christmas Gift to Oil Companies Will be Announced on Election Day

Sale of Pristine Wilderness Slated to Happen Days Before Christmas

Salt Lake City, Utah—On election day, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to announce that it will sell oil and gas leases on areas in eastern Utah including sections of Desolation Canyon, White River, Diamond Mountain, Bourdette Draw, and other lands in the Nine Mile Canyon region. These public lands had largely been off-limits to new oil and gas leasing because of a series of federal court and administrative decisions overturning earlier illegal BLM leasing decisions.

BLM plans to release its December 2008 Utah oil and gas lease sale list on Election Day. The BLM had previously declared these pristine lands to be wilderness caliber landscapes.

"Previous administrations proved that there can be a balance between wilderness protection and oil and gas development," said former BLM Director Jim Baca. "Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has worked tirelessly to appease the oil and gas industry no matter the cost to our national heritage of wild and untamed places. Extraordinary places like Desolation Canyon deserve to be protected."

The December 19 sale threatens large swaths of several magnificent public landscapes, including Upper Desolation Canyon, where the Green River meanders through hundreds of thousands of acres of unprotected wilderness in the northern Book Cliffs. Desolation Canyon was named and apparently first described by John Wesley Powell during his historic expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers to the Grand Canyon. Upon entering the canyon, Powell described the area in his diary as the "wildest" and a "wilderness." In its 1999 re-inventory of the area, the BLM wrote of Desolation Canyon, "This is a place where a visitor can experience true solitude—where the forces of nature continue to shape the colorful, rugged landscape." The BLM also cited the area’s "…cultural, scenic, geologic, botanical, and wildlife values."

"What makes this action by the Interior Department so deplorable is that based on its own analysis, BLM determined these areas to be wilderness-quality lands," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation."

Like most Western states, Utah has a surplus of BLM lands that have been leased for oil and gas development but are not in production, as well as a surplus of applications for permission to drill. At the end of fiscal year 2006, there were approximately 4.6 million acres of BLM- managed lands in Utah under lease, but just over than 1 million acres in production.  In addition, between January 1, 2001 and September 30, 2008 the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved 9,724 permits to drill new oil and gas wells in Utah. As of September 30th, there were 3,640 approved drill permits from that nearly eight-year period that had not yet been drilled. According to Bloch, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation groups have challenged only a handful of drilling projects during this period.

"This give-away to the oil companies on the way out of town borders on criminal malfeasance," said Bobby McEnaney, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. At a time when oil companies already hold millions of acres of public lands under lease—but are not being developed—there is simply no reason for BLM to rush ahead with this lease sale."

"Handing over the magnificent Desolation Canyon and Book Cliffs to oil and gas interests is just the first horse out of the gate with the Bush administration's no wilderness policy," said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society’s Rocky Mountain office. "The Bush administration is racing to the finish line to drill and mine every last piece of wild land without providing enough time for Congress to act and permanently protect wilderness for future generations. Ultimately, the American people will be the losers of this race, as once developed for short-term profits, America's natural heritage will never be eligible for wilderness designation."

The tracts of public lands that will be opened to leasing are dominated by lands that BLM inventoried in Utah between 1996-99 and again between 2001-2007 and determined to have wilderness character. They largely all part of the lands proposed for Wilderness designation in America's Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R.1919/S.1170), a bill that has been supported in the 110th Congress by 19 senators and 160 members of the House of Representatives.

"The Bush administration’s energy development regardless of the environmental cost policy endangers our national treasures such as Dinosaur National Monument. Increasingly surrounded by oil and gas development, Dinosaur’s resources including air quality, soundscapes and visual resources are in peril. The latest leases including Diamond Mountain would further exasperate the problem," said Karen Hevel-Mingo, Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest Regional Office.


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