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Thu, Dec. 12

Environmental groups try to derail oil and gas exploration plan

This file image taken July 8, 2009, shows a rainbow-colored piece of petrified wood outside a gift shop in Holbrook. (Felicia Fonseca/AP)

This file image taken July 8, 2009, shows a rainbow-colored piece of petrified wood outside a gift shop in Holbrook. (Felicia Fonseca/AP)

PHOENIX — Environmental groups are trying to halt a plan by the Bureau of Land Management to lease out more than 4,000 acres of land near the Petrified Forest National Park for oil and gas exploration.

The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court contends the agency failed to look at the consequences, environmental impacts and adverse effects of oil and gas drilling. That includes not just the immediate area but also effects on water supply and quality farther away.

Attorneys for the environmental groups also charged that BLM did not consider effects on historic properties in the area.

So now they are asking a federal judge to void any of the leases issued under what they claim is a flawed — and illegal — plan.

But Rebecca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney with WildEarth Guardians, told Capitol Media Services that more than just these leases are at issue.

She said this is the latest manifestation of efforts by the Trump administration to speed oil and gas extraction from public land, ignoring a host of existing environmental laws and regulations. Fischer said this lawsuit should help curb that unilateral action.

At the heart of the fight are some BLM parcels located on either side of the Petrified Forest National Park over the Coconino aquifer.

“As the most productive aquifer in northern Arizona, the Coconino aquifer provides industry, land owners, businesses and municipalities with a dependable supply of water,’’ said attorney Elizabeth Potter of the environmental law firm of Advocates for the West. She represents the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians.

“Millions of downstream water users rely on the Little Colorado River, which flows into the Grand Canyon and feeds the Colorado River,’’ she wrote, calling the “reasonably foreseeable impacts’’ of oil and gas development here as “staggering.’’

“Such development will divert millions of gallons of water from limited local supplies, product significant quantities of air and water pollution, destroy and degrade the landscape and wildlife habitat, and industrialize this quiet, rural area,’’ Potter said. That, in turn, she said, will increase the risk of toxic spills, water contamination, “and will harm wildlife and the people who use and enjoy the lands in the area.’’

It may not just be oil and gas that the bidders are after. There’s also helium which is critical to manufacturing, technology and aerospace industries.

Potter said the federal Mineral Leasing Act reserves all helium produced from federal lands to the government, meaning federal leases generally cannot be granted for the primary purpose of helium production.

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