Surrounded by members of the state’s congressional delegation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday signed legislation (HB 148) that seeks to have the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) turn over to the state the public lands it manages. The expectation is that this is the opening shot in what will become a legal war between several western states and the federal government.

Utah state lawmakers who passed the legislation aiming at freeing up more public lands for oil and natural gas development, among other things, were warned by their legislative counsel that there is a good chance HB 148 will be found to be unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Herbert and Republican state legislators have said they think the measure will pass muster with the courts, especially if other western states take a similar tack.

State legislator and the author of HB 148, Ken Ivory, called this an effort by “Team Utah” whose time has come. “This is just the beginning of what Team Utah can be as a national model for being self-reliant and free,” Ivory said. “This is our time and Utah will lead the way.”

Herbert called the law the beginning of the public land debate and reiterated that Utah wants both title and administrative control of its public lands, much the way states like North Dakota did earlier in U.S. history. He and others see this control allowing more responsible development through oil/gas and other vehicles to provide local communities more funding for public education.

“This is the first step in a long journey,” said Herbert, throwing out an invitation to other western states to join the effort.

Herbert took his action with Utah’s two U.S. Senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, at his side, despite BLM’s indications earlier this month that the prospects may get better for expanding natural gas exploration and production (E&P) on BLM-managed lands in eastern Utah. The federal agency, however, drew strong opposition from environmental groups concerned about the impact on a rugged wilderness area (see Shale Daily, March 20).

While lamenting federal influence at the county level in his state, Hatch said Utah “can take better care of its land, and we will.” He said the state legislation will help manage development that can ultimately help boost funding for public education that he alleged suffers in many counties because of federal demands.

Separately on Friday, BLM’s office in Vernal, released a technical support document on the Greater Uinta Basin Oil/Gas Cumulative Impacts. Under the agency’s resource management plan (RMP) the technical document can be used to develop what BLM called “generic assumptions” regarding mineral development using the best available data at the time.

In the meantime, HB 148 attempts to overcome the traditional limited access states have to federal lands, of which there are 28 million acres in Utah, or about half of the state. In these revenue-tight times for states, the Utah law is premised on an unproven assertion that the federal lands cost states tens of millions of dollars annually in lost revenues from oil/gas production and other mineral recovery activities that have been blocked.

Utah’s law exempts national parks, military installations, Native American reservations and congressionally approved wilderness areas and monuments. HB 148 mainly zeros in on U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands.

Under the law’s provisions, the state would lay claim to the 1.9-million acres in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the southern part of the state that was designated as such by President Clinton is 1996. Since that declaration, local interests have been in almost constant combat with the federal government over various uses of the land.

In its announcement earlier in the month, BLM offered an olive branch, endorsing an alternative to allow Gasco Energy Inc.’s proposed development of a natural gas E&P project covering more than 200,000 acres and potentially 1,300 gas wells, according to the parties involved. The project is in line for final approval by mid-April when a final environmental impact statement is scheduled for approval.

Utah BLM Director Juan Palma told local news media March 16 that Utah is now closer to expanding its gas production capabilities, noting it was part of initial steps by the federal agency to expand energy production in Utah and nationally, “while ensuring that development happens safely and responsibly with a minimal surface footprint.”

A coalition of environmental groups criticized the action, saying it will jeopardize what they classify as the “unique and rugged beauty of Desolation Canyon wilderness.” The groups — Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and Wilderness Society — oppose the development of remote parts of the Uinta Basin Shale play.

In its technical document, the BLM Vernal office looks at existing and “reasonably forecast” future oil/gas development in the Greater Uinta Basin covering more than 5.8 million acres in portions of five counties.

The Uinta Basin is located south and east of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains, fed by a number of creeks and rivers that eventually feed into Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Although less well known than the Wasatch, the Uinta Mountains include Utah’s highest peak, the 13,528-foot Kings Peak. Vernal, UT (population 7,700) is the largest town in the basin.

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