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National dustup surrounds Utah helium extraction project near wilderness

Company owners defend project at site carved from wilderness area

The area in Utah’s Emery County where Colorado-based Twin Bridges wants to site a well pad to pursue directional drilling for exploration for helium. The project has come under fire by environmental critics who filed a lawsuit to prevent it from going forward because they say the drilling would have visual impacts to a wilderness area. Company officials say the drilling operation would be based on a 5.4-acre well site on federal land, but was legally carved out from the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness designation in 2019.
Twin Bridges

SALT LAKE CITY — Company officials who want to drill an exploratory well for helium in Emery County are firing back at environmental critics and what they say has been grossly mischaracterized news coverage surrounding their project.

Tom Wallace, an owner of Colorado-based Twin Bridges, said the company’s desire to site a 5.4-acre well pad on federal land near the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness in southeastern Utah has been caught in a tempest of anti-Trump rhetoric and unfairly painted as a “rushed” effort to tap what could be a significant helium reserve in the area.

“We are not proposing to drill inside the wilderness boundary,” he said in a written statement, contrary to what has been printed in national publications.

A stock watering tank in Emery County in the immediate vicinity where Twin Bridges, a Colorado-based company, wants to site a drill pad to explore for helium. The area is next to the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness and was carved out of a federal law that designated the wilderness. Twin Bridges wants a right of way from the Bureau of Land Management for pipelines that will follow an existing two-track road. Environmental critics sued to stop the project and obtained a temporary restraining order for any ground disturbing activity.
Twin Bridges

All surface activities, he emphasized, will take place outside the wilderness boundary, which was designated in 2019 after President Donald Trump signed the Dingell Act into law.

“The 1,410-acre federal lease was never in the wilderness nor was it ever inside a wilderness study area as the Bureau of Land Management determined this land did not possess wilderness-like characteristics,” Wallace said.

Twin Bridges bought the federal lease in 2018 and also has two leases of Utah school trust land parcels. The company plans to put in a helium processing plant 5 miles away from the well pad and outside of any designated wilderness boundary should the exploratory effort prove fruitful.

Environmental groups that include the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have filed suit to block the Bowknot Helium Project and obtained a temporary restraining order in December.

The order was granted one day before the Bureau of Land Management, after completing a monthslong environmental review of the project, issued the go-ahead in a finding that said there would be no significant impact from the Bowknot Project.

Another hearing to determine if the order will stand is set for Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.

In a press release issued by the environmental groups that sued, the project is described as “dangerous drilling” in an area that should never have been on the table for development.

“Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness is too special to drill,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “We’re grateful the court enjoined this ill-conceived project and gave this incomparable landscape a brief reprieve. We’ll be ready for round 2 with the Trump administration and company in early January.”

The project’s characterization and the legal action is frustrating for Wallace and his brother Dave Wallace — the other principal of the company — because of what they say were extensive negotiations with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to accommodate concerns.

“Twin Bridges, along with its legal counsel, painstakingly tried for over a year to negotiate an amiable solution with SUWA on terms they could accept and went so far as to move the entire well pad over 2 miles to the northwest and 600 feet lower in elevation to accommodate SUWA’s concern about visual impacts to recreational users,” Dave Wallace said, adding the site was recommended by the organization.

The brothers were described as “speculators” in media reports detailing the project, which has also been described as one that will use fracking to extract the helium. Tom Wallace said the geology of the area does not require such a technique and the brothers have other projects in various stages of development, none of which entail fracking, including one that is currently extracting helium in Arizona.

Additionally, Wallace said the claim that they plan to “punch a helium well into the heart of Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness” is not true.

“As of now, we are only permitting one well to be directionally drilled from the SUWA-recommended well pad into a (school trust lands) mineral tract whereby we’re not even currently contemplating drilling on the federal lease until we can appraise and test the resource,” Wallace said. “In other words, we have yet to understand this resource and we are not asking the BLM for anything at this point except a right of way to drill from a pad carved out of the wilderness by law.”

Helium is on the nation’s critical resource list and globally there is a shortage of the gas, which is used in more than just party balloons. It has critical military, aerospace and medical uses, including its role in rocket engine testing, air-to-air missile guidance systems and to cool the magnets in magnetic-resonance imaging machines.

Most recently, a South African company has patented cryogenic cases using helium to keep coronavirus vaccines at extremely cold conditions for up to 30 days so they can be delivered to remote parts of Africa and southeast Asia.

Utah’s congressional delegation, in a letter to the BLM, said development of the Bowknot Project would help domestic industries meet helium needs for years to come and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign-sourced helium.

They stressed because the project occurs outside the wilderness boundaries it should go forward — and under the law — the BLM is obligated to honor “valid existing rights.”

Wes Adams, assistant director of oil and gas with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, said Twin Bridges was issued leases by that agency in 2015 and 2016 because of the rare, high-grade helium potential identified on those lands.

“This high-grade helium stands to benefit Utah’s public schools with significant revenues, while also supplying local markets with this rarely occurring non-greenhouse gas that will be used for high-tech and medical applications,” Adams said.

Wallace maintains there was nothing “rushed” about the project because the lease was bought well before the Dingell Act designating the wilderness crossed Trump’s desk, and the project area was carved out of the wilderness designation.

But Newell said the drilling and attendant infrastructure, including a 150-foot tall drilling rig, is just not a good fit for the remote area.

“The agency itself (the BLM) acknowledges it will have direct impacts to the wilderness,” he said. “The larger point is that the San Rafael Desert is very remote and very quiet and largely left alone by the vast majority of people who travel through Utah. It is very, very remote.”

Newell contends the project’s infrastructure will essentially “industrialize” an area that is one of the quietest remote places in Utah.

Wallace countered that the drilling rig is temporary and when drilling operations are complete, the tallest feature visible in the immediate vicinity of the well pad will be the silver stock-watering tank that already exists about 500 feet away.

The delegation’s letter points out that the Dingell Act does not preclude non-wilderness activities occurring outside the boundaries of a designated wilderness area.

The Bureau of Land Management, the letter said, must operate based on law.

Critics counter the agency failed to take a hard look at the project’s impacts and therefore violated the law.