Oil shale, BLM hit again by lawsuit

It turns out the fresh look the federal government promised to take in settling two oil shale lawsuits wasn’t adequate for some of the conservation groups behind that litigation.

A new suit brought last week says the Bureau of Land Management failed to follow the Endangered Species Act in issuing revised land management allocations for possible oil shale and tar sands development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

“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,” Matt Sandler, a staff attorney at Rocky Mountain Wild, said in a news release. “BLM has skipped this step, which will push these species closer to extinction.”

Glenn Vawter, executive director of the National Oil Shale Association, called the latest suit “just another round, I guess, of delay and an attempt to stop … responsible development of oil shale.”

In January 2009, 13 conservation groups sued the government, challenging the BLM’s decisions in 2008 that allocated lands for possible oil shale and tar sands development and set oil shale rules including royalty rates. In a settlement in early 2011, the BLM and Interior Department announced plans to take what the government called a fresh look at the issues.

In March, the BLM decided to make about 679,000 acres available for potential oil shale leasing in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and 132,000 acres available for potential tar sands leasing in Utah. Only 26,300 prospective oil shale acres are available in Colorado, compared with about 360,000 acres previously. Altogether, the 2008 action had made about 2 million acres of oil shale acreage available for possible leasing.

The BLM also decided to make oil shale acreage initially available only for research, development and demonstration leases, with the ability for companies to convert to a commercial lease if they satisfy certain requirements.

The agency is continuing to consider the oil shale rules.

The Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance are among plaintiffs in the first litigation that also have joined in the new suit. They contend oil shale and tar sands development would pollute and deplete water, emit greenhouse gases and destroy habitat, resulting in harm to threatened and endangered species including the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker, Mexican spotted owl, and many others.

“The survival and recovery of four fish species that inhabit rivers and creeks in the Colorado River Basin, multiple plants found only on the Colorado Plateau, and an imperiled owl that survives in the Plateau’s canyon country depend on the clean flowing waters, abundant natural habitat, and unpolluted air that typifies these BLM lands,” the suit says.

Conservation groups also had pressed the issue of not consulting with Fish and Wildlife in the 2009 litigation. The new suit also says the BLM failed to prepare a biological assessment or provide a list of species found in the affected areas.

The BLM declined comment Tuesday and typically doesn’t comment on active litigation. However, it previously has contended it can’t consult with Fish and Wildlife before it considers site-specific plans because it would be largely acting on speculation.

Vawter called the new litigation “very disappointing,” and said it’s also baffling, at least when it comes to Colorado, where he said the BLM left little acreage available for possible oil shale development anyway.

“I mean there’s little tiny pieces here and there. There’s not substantial blocs that I think any developer would be interested in, in my opinion,” he said.


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