Three conservation groups have asked a federal judge for an injunction to stop the United States Bureau of Land Management from allowing Bill Barrett Corp. to begin drilling 25 new natural gas wells in Nine Mile Canyon.
Attorneys for the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Wilderness Society claim, in court papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, that the BLM's Price office violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it used categorical exclusions to approve 25 permits to drill sought by Bill Barrett.
As defined in the NEPA, a categorical exclusion is an action that does not "individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment ... and ... for which, therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required."
According to court documents, the BLM approved Bill Barrett's permit applications based on the fact that drilling had occurred on the proposed locations within the previous five years; however, attorneys for the conservation groups allege that the agency failed to provide information about the NEPA analysis that led to approval of the original well sites.
"BLM unlawfully applied these categorical exclusions despite the lack of any supporting existing environmental analysis under NEPA," the attorneys argue. "Now, the construction and operation of these wells is likely to have detrimental effects on the integrity of the Nine Mile Canyon region."
BLM spokesperson Megan Crandall said Thursday that the agency had not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit. Crandall said that the BLM does not, as a matter of policy, publicly comment on pending litigation.
Nine Mile Canyon - currently under consideration for designation as a National Historic District - is home to an unprecedented number of prehistoric cultural sites, including rock art panels that the BLM itself has described as the "longest outdoor art gallery in the world."
The road that follows the canyon floor has also been identified by the agency as a backcountry byway and by the state of Utah as a scenic byway.
The BLM is in the process of completing an environmental impact statement on a request by Bill Barrett to drill an additional 700 to 800 natural gas wells on the canyon's West Tavaputs Plateau by 2016.
The Denver-based company already operates between 100 and 110 natural gas wells in the canyon.
It estimates that once the gas field is fully developed it will produce about 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas during the next three decades.
Given current national consumption levels, that amount of gas would be used in 17 days.