Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Utah: Four Enviro Groups suing over Tar Sands Project

Potential tar sands project sparks suit

The Daily Sentinel (Colorado)
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Four environmental groups are accusing the Bureau of Land Management of violating various federal laws in order to allow tar sands development near Canyonlands National Park’s Maze District in Utah and within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Tar sands in the United States exist only in Utah, and industry officials say they are unlikely to be developed. But tar sands are included with oil shale in an unconventional fossil-fuels-leasing program being developed by the BLM under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Like oil shale, commercial leasing for the sands could begin next year.

Since 1981, tar sands have been available for leasing through a combined hydrocarbon lease, which could include conventional oil and gas.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Utah U.S. District Court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Wilderness Society and two other groups, claims the BLM is trying to reinstate 23 allegedly expired oil and gas leases on 38,000 acres within the monument, national recreation area and two wilderness study areas.

“Tar sands extraction could damage Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park and impact air quality and visibility at Canyonlands and Arches national parks,” said David Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Association in Salt Lake City.

The lawsuit claims the BLM retroactively reinstated the leases by labeling them “suspended” after they had expired in the early 1980s. The groups claim the leases and all federal minerals in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were withdrawn from leasing when President Bill Clinton created the monument in 1996.

The groups claim that reinstating the leases in the monument amounts to issuing new leases, which violates the federal Antiquities Act, under which Clinton created the monument.

BLM spokeswoman Mary L. Wilson said in a statement the BLM had a “legal duty” to suspend all 23 leases more than 20 years ago when the lease owners submitted plans for operations there. The BLM, she said, never got around to it, and now the agency is correcting its mistake.

“The applicants had procedural rights that BLM can honor now only by suspending the oil and gas leases and by processing the CHL (combined hydrocarbon lease) conversion applications that the applicants wish to pursue,” she said. “The underlying conventional oil and gas leases did not expire before BLM made its reinstatement and suspension decisions.”

No development will be allowed on the leases until after an environmental assessment or other public process is complete.

Industry officials are adamant that tar sands development is unlikely in the area, but SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said the bottom line is that some of the lease owners have fronted money for the BLM to convert their conventional oil and gas leases to combined hydrocarbon leases and apparently take a risk on tar sands.

“The better stage for us to be involved is what we’re doing here, which is challenging the leases themselves,” Bloch said. “We would rather guard against any future plan of development that way.”

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