A federal court in Washington, DC, on Wednesday rejected a challenge by several environmental groups of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision authorizing a Denver producer to conduct seismic gas exploration activity on the West Tavatus Plateau in eastern Utah.
The ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was a major victory for Interior Department’s BLM agency, Denver producer Bill Barrett Corp., as well as a number of other parties who intervened in the case. At the same time, it was a setback for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Utah Rock Art Association, which brought the lawsuit in April to halt exploration on the plateau in eastern Utah.
The five groups alleged that BLM’s approval of the so-called Stone Cabin 3-D seismic gas exploration project violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). They claimed Bill Barrett’s seismic work would harm cultural resources and damage wilderness areas. The groups sought a declaratory judgment that the project was illegal, and asked the court to vacate and remand BLM’s decision.
The “estimated [acreage] disturbance from the seismic project is 11.5 acres. When this estimated disturbance is compared with the 57,000-acre project area, the agency’s characterization of the project’s ‘light footprint’ appears rational, as does the conclusion that the project’s incremental impact would be minimal,” said Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in his ruling.
“Plaintiffs are likely correct that the cumulative impacts analysis is not perfect; that is not, however, the question the court faces in its review of agency action. Here, the court is satisfied that BLM adequately analyzed the cumulative impacts of the instant project, including adding its short-term effects to the backdrop of other activities in the areas.”
The court also “is satisfied that the agency has fulfilled its NHPA obligation to ‘make a reasonable and good faith effort’ to identify historic properties potentially affected by the Stone Cabin project,” Sullivan said. “The court…places great weight on the fact that the…agency action received the approval of the very entities charged with overseeing compliance with NHPA.”
The court further agreed that the BLM met its NEPA requirements. “While plaintiffs may disagree with the conclusion reached in the EA [environmental assessment], and even correctly argue that the cumulative impacts analysis could be more comprehensive, [their] contention that ‘they would have done more’ does not render the cumulative impacts analysis violative of NEPA,” the judge noted.
He further said an environmental impact statement (EIS) was not necessary. “As BLM correctly argues, when mitigation measures adequately reduce adverse impact to an insignificant level, an EIS need not be prepared.”
The court’s role in “reviewing the agency’s decision not to prepare an EIS is limited; the court need only ‘ensure, primarily, that no arguably significant consequences have been ignored,” Sullivan noted.
The court also said the BLM’s decision was in accordance with the FLPMA, which requires the agency to manage public lands within a wilderness study area “in a manner so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness.”
Bill Barrett was allowed to begin its seismic work last May while Sullivan ruled on the merits of the lawsuit brought by the five groups. Sullivan’s ruling clears the way for the producer to continues its activities on the West Tavatus Plateau near Price, UT.
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