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BLM's Utah plans on shaky legal ground

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Sarah Gilman | Jan 22, 2009 05:20 PM

It's amazing how quickly things can change. In the last week, we've watched Barack Obama take his (slightly bungled) presidential oath of office and George W. Bush helicopter back to Crawford, Tex. In the last month, we High Country News-ers were busy reporting on all the speedy and sweeping changes that Bush made on his way out the door. Many people have pinned their hopes on Obama to reverse those last-minute actions (indeed, he's already gotten started). But now it appears some of Bush's changes will turn around relatively quickly without any help from the new administration.

On Jan. 17, federal District Judge Ricardo Urbina granted a temporary restraining order blocking 77 controversial oil and gas leases covering more than 103,000 acres in eastern and southeastern Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reports:

Should Urbina continue to rule in favor of the seven conservation and historic-preservation organizations that sued to stop the (Dec. 19) BLM auction (where the leases were sold), the land-use plans that were the bedrock of the lease sale ultimately could crumble.

The Salt Lake paper is referring to three of six such plans, covering millions of acres of Utah, that the agency rushed out (ostensibly to get them finalized before Bush left office) last year. As HCN reported back in October, those plans represent a massive public lands giveaway to oil and gas; the BLM's hurry made it difficult for members of the public and other federal land agencies to protest. On top of that, as HCN reported in January, the Environmental Protection Agency accused several offices of the Utah BLM of failing to account for the air pollution that will be generated by oil and gas development under the new plans.

Urbina's ruling, which finds that the conservation and historic preservation groups who sued the BLM are likely to succeed on the merits of their case, seems to vindicate the EPA:

By not engaging in quantitative ozone dispersion modeling, the plaintiffs’ point out that BLM is unable to assess the concentration of pollution in the air and therefore cannot adequately measure those pollutants which are expressed in ambient concentrations . . . BLM cannot rely on (Environmental Impact Statement)s that lack air pollution and ozone level statistics.

. . .

Finally, although the court recognizes that the “development of domestic energy
resources,” is an important public interest. . ., this interest is far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment is preferable in this instance. 


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