Lawsuit seeks to block Bush energy plan for federal land

Friday, December 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Environmentalists have sued the Bush administration in an effort to block the president's efforts to accelerate energy exploration on federal land.

The lawsuit claims the Bureau of Land Management and its parent agency, the Interior Department, broke the law by not assessing the environmental and cultural damage that could be done or consulting with Indian tribes before opening a dozen parcels in southern Utah to oil and gas exploration.

The environmental groups that filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington said the administration was trying to cut corners to speed up processing of oil and gas leases.

In doing so, the Bush administration has ``embarked on an aggressive stealth campaign to open up public lands for resource development,'' said Johanna Wald, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the lawsuit in conjunction with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

``We filed this lawsuit to protect those lands and to stop BLM before it gets started,'' she said.

Recent BLM directives say the agency should ``look for opportunities to improve and streamline the management of the (National Environmental Protection Act) process for all energy resource proposals.''

The 12 leases cover about 10,500 acres in four parts of southern Utah _ the Lockhart Basin south of Moab, the Comb Ridge and Butler Wash area, Montezuma County in the southeastern corner of the state, and two leases in the Mussentuchit Badlands near Capitol Reef National Park.

SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said the lands are homes to fragile species of plants and animals, delicate soils, historic Indian ruins and artifacts and spectacular scenery, all of which could be irreparably harmed if oil or gas development is permitted on the land.

SUWA has asked Congress to include 2,400 acres of the disputed land in wilderness areas. Development on the land would prohibit a wilderness designation.

The environmental groups are asking a judge to revoke the leases and require BLM to conduct the necessary environmental and historic analyses.

Wald said a victory in the case would force the administration to conduct the studies whenever it issues oil and gas leases.

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the bureau does not comment on pending litigation.

Four of the 12 parcels at issue were bought at the Sept. 6-7 auction by Lowe Partners of Midland, Texas. Two others were bought by Yates Petroleum Corp. from Artesia, N.M. Six others were bought by agents either buying the land for themselves or unidentified companies.