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Federal judge rejects approval of basin energy project

FILE - Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County. A portion of the Gasco energy project poised to unfold in the Uinta Basin was overturned in a federal court ruling issued earlier this week after the judge said t
FILE - Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County. A portion of the Gasco energy project poised to unfold in the Uinta Basin was overturned in a federal court ruling issued earlier this week after the judge said the Bureau of Land Management failed to properly consider all the impacts.
Ray Bloxham, SUWA

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge told the Bureau of Land Management to do a better job at its homework, referring to the agency's conclusion two years ago that a planned 16-well project in the Uinta Basin would have "no significant impact."

Magistrate Judge Evelyn J. Furse didn't buy into the BLM's reasoning, instead finding in a 30-page ruling that the agency acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it ignored impacts to air quality and recreation raised by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Specifically, Furse said she wants the BLM to reconsider air quality impacts and use meteorological data from Duchesne and Uintah counties, rather than Canyonlands National Park 100 miles to the south.

The BLM had argued the monitors in the basin had not been in place to give reliable and sufficient information, but Furse disagreed.

She also faulted BLM's reasoning over impacts to recreation along the Green River, determining the agency did not adequately consider the noise and other disruptions from the development of the Gasco energy project. Of the 16 proposed wells, five fall within a half mile of the river, the court noted, and many others are in close proximity.

The court also said it was wrong for the BLM to not consider the cumulative impacts from the project, especially given the oil and gas activity that already takes place in the region and the fact that this is part of an overall planned development of some 1,300 new wells anticipated by the company.

Furse's ruling could potentially put the entire project in jeopardy and calls into question future energy development in the Uinta Basin, which suffers from high levels of ozone pollution in the wintertime, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“This decision not only sends the 16-well project back to the drawing board, it calls into question any drilling approved under the larger Gasco project,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the alliance.

“The court was clear that BLM cannot view the environmental impacts of drilling these 16 wells in isolation. Rather, it needs to consider those impacts in combination with the regional impacts of drilling more than 28,000 wells BLM predicts could be developed over the next 10 years,” he said.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has partnered with university researchers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and multiple other entities to map ozone pollution, the conditions that lead to its formation and sources of the pollutant.

The study was the largest and first of its kind, preceding another pilot project regulators have undertaken to survey leaks of volatile organic compounds from storage tanks at oil and gas sites. Those compounds, according to the Division of Air Quality, are a signficant contributor to ozone pollutants in the basin.

Utah is facing a potential nonattainment designation for the region by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for exceeding the federal threshold for permitted levels of ozone.

This past winter in February, the area experienced extremely high levels of ozone trapped by a temperature inversion, according to the division.

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