Environmental groups sue US BLM over proposed Utah natural gas project

In a suit filed in US District Court in Salt Lake City Friday, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club joined the Wilderness Society, claiming BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act

A spokeswoman representing of a coalition of environmental groups suing the US Bureau of Land Management over its approval last year of a project that calls for drilling nearly 1,300 natural gas wells in east-central Utah hopes the groups can work out its differences with BLM in an amicable manner, she said Wednesday.

"We've certainly shown our concerns about this project. I hope that we can find an agreeable path forward that will comply with both the BLM and EPA mandates. That's been our hope and maybe that will happen," said Nada Culver, a spokeswoman for The Wilderness Society.

In a suit filed in US District Court in Salt Lake City Friday, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club joined the Wilderness Society, claiming BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it approved last June a record of decision for the Uinta Basin National Gas Development Project.

The suit claims the BLM, in adopting the preferred alternative in its draft environmental impact statement for the project, ignored environmental and outdoor recreation groups, a group of federal lawmakers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The environmental groups contend the proposed project -- which calls for allowing Denver-based Gasco Energy to drill up to 1,298 wells from 575 well pads in a project area that comprises nearly 207,000 acres -- would result in increased ozone pollution, encroach upon critical wildlife habitat and imperial the possibility that portions of the project area could someday be designated as wilderness.

"I thought there was a way to do this project in a way more consistent with this administration's approach to oil and gas development. That was the global concern," Culver said.

She said her greatest fear is the risk the proposed project could pose to air quality in the greater Uinta Basin region, which has experienced some of the worst winter ozone pollution in the nation. Culver added the project could negatively affect critically important species such as the greater sage grouse, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified as warranted for listing and protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Culver called for the BLM to prepare a supplemental EIS for the Gasco project to take into account data not included in the current EIS. "I think what's going to happen. They would have to go back and do further analysis," she said.

Much of the needed data on air quality and the greater sage grouse can be gleaned from the analysis of research that already is readily available, Culver said. "I think it needs to be done. I think the BLM understands the concerns," she added.

A representative of BLM did not immediately return requests for comment and a spokesman for Gasco said he was unable to provide an immediate comment on the lawsuit.