Court Halts Oil and Gas Leasing in Utah Wilderness

WASHINGTON, DC, January 19, 2009 (ENS) – At least 110,000 acres of pristine Utah wilderness is temporarily protected from oil and gas companies due to a ruling Saturday night by a federal judge in a case brought by conservationists.

Judge Ricardo Urbina of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a temporary restraining order that prevents the Bureau of Land Management from moving forward with these leases.

A coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on December 17, 2008 to prevent the leasing of these public lands.

“This ruling is a huge victory in protecting our nation’s pristine wilderness from destruction due to oil and gas drilling,” said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC. “We do not need to sacrifice our wild lands to achieve a secure energy future.”

In his ruling, Judge Urbina found that the conservation groups “have shown a likelihood of success on the merits” and that the “‘development of domestic energy resources’ … is far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment.”

South Book Cliffs proposed wilderness in Utah is at risk of oil and gas drilling. (Photo by Tom Till courtesy Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)

The merits of the case will be heard later in 2009. Until that time, the Bureau of Land Management is prohibited from cashing the checks issued for the contested acres of Utah wilderness.

“We’re thrilled with this decision,” said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “BLM’s attempt to sell these leases just before the Bush administration left office has been showcased for what it really is – a parting gift to the oil and gas industry. Judge Urbina’s decision firmly puts the brakes on these plans.”

The contested areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon include lands that contain the nation’s greatest density of ancient rock art and other cultural resources.

These lands were recently made available to industry through six resource management plans covering three million acres of public lands.

“Under the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management pushed through Resource Management Plans that treated some of America’s most sensitive and spectacular public lands as the private playgrounds of the oil and gas companies,” said Bill Hedden, executive director of Grand Canyon Trust.

“Today’s heartening court decision gives these unique places a last second pardon from forever sacrificing their archaeological treasures, pristine air and remote wildness in order to sate only an hour or two of our national addiction to oil and gas,” he said.

“When we begin to allow oil drilling in the backdrop of an icon like Arches National Park, we know something needs to change,” said Sierra Club representative Myke Bybee.

“It’s time to stop handing over our natural treasures just so the oil industry can make more money,” Bybee said. “Instead, we could be investing in efficiency and the kind of clean energy that will benefit all of us and leave our best wild places intact.”

Click here [] to see previous ENS coverage of this lawsuit.

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