Environment: Lawsuit challenges federal study on oil shale and tar sands development in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming

Oil shale tar sands map Green River formation
Potential oil shale and tar sands development areas in the Green River formation of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Conservation groups say BLM missed key step in environmental study

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — A federal plan to develop oil shale and tar sands across about 800,000 acres of public lands in the West is missing a key piece, according to conservation groups, who say the Bureau of Land Management should have consulted with federal wildlife biologists before finalizing a major environmental study.

At issue are 9 BLM resource management plans in the Green River Formation of the Colorado River Basin, spread across parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Several months ago, the BLM approved changes in those plans with a single programmatic environmental impact statement. The changes make 687,600 acres available for oil shale leasing and 132,100 acres available for tar sands leasing.

Development of those fossil fuel resources could threaten four endangered Colorado River fish, as well as several other terrestrial species in the region. According to the environmental groups, the BLM did not fulfill its mandated requirement to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before finalizing the plan.

“The Endangered Species Act is pretty clear on this,” said Taylor McKinnon, director of the Grand Canyon Trust‘s energy program. “The BLM has a duty to consult with the FWS at the earliest possible time … this proposal deserves close scrutiny through the lens of the Endangered Species Act,” McKinnon said.

The BLM wants to do site-specific consultation as various parcels are leased and proposed for development, but the coalition of conservation groups said that a piecemeal process would likely miss the full scope of the potential impacts on a regional level.

More fundamentally, the BLM’s path is out of step with the Department of Interior’s stated intention of conserving Colorado River flows, McKinnon added. Given the potential for regional drying as a result of climate change, any step toward approving water-intensive fossil fuel development is sheer folly, according to the environmental community.

The stakes in the legal battle are high. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the region may hold between 353 billion and 1.146 trillion barrels of oil — anywhere from two to sevem times as much as Alberta’s 170 billion barrels targeted by the Keystone XL pipeline.

“This citizen intervention is necessary because the Department of Interior is sending mixed messages to the public. On one day, the administration issues a statement that the Colorado River’s critical water supply will be protected for people and habitat, and then on another day they announce the most carbon intensive mining practice on the planet can move forward,” said John Weisheit, conservation director with Living Rivers. “The two programs are not mutually beneficial. Interior has to protect the Colorado River, there is no other choice.”

“The Endangered Species Act requires agencies to consult with the experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service when they know listed species will be impacted,” said Matt Sandler, a staff attorney at Rocky Mountain Wild. “BLM has skipped this step, which will push these species closer to extinction.”

The groups filing the lawsuit are Grand Canyon Trust, Living Rivers, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.  Many of the same groups on Monday challenged a new oil refinery in Green River, Utah, that could process fuels derived from oil shale and tar sands mined in lands subject to this lawsuit.

To download a copy of the lawsuit, click here.


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