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 Petrified Forest National Park for oil and gas exploration.
Their 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. Those include effects not just in the immediate area but also on water supply and quality farther away.
The environmental groups also charged that the Bureau of Land Management did not consider effects on historic properties in the area.
There was no immediate response from BLM to the lawsuit.
The environmental groups are asking a federal judge to void leases issued under what they claim is a flawed and illegal plan.
More than just these leases are at issue, said Rebecca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney with WildEarth Guardians.
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. She said this lawsuit should help curb that unilateral action.
Some BLM parcels are located on either side of Petrified Forest National Park and 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 Advocates for the West. She represents the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, the 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 “staggering.”
“Such development will divert millions of gallons of water from limited local supplies, produce 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 and 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.
Last year a Canadian firm, Desert Mountain Energy Corp., obtained two of the leases, paying $2 an acre.
The firm already leases 37,000 acres of state land near the Holbrook Basin, where it has found seven helium deposits so far.
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.
“However, helium produced as a byproduct of natural gas extraction may be sold pursuant to a contract with the BLM, subject to federal royalties,” Potter wrote.
A particular concern, according to the lawsuit, is the feared use of hydraulic fracturing and acidizing, more commonly known as “fracking.”
On one hand, it makes drilling and extracting more economically viable where it was not before. But the concern is the chemicals and amount of water used.
Last year U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, an Arizona Democrat, expressed concerns with the leases, including the threat of runoff into the Little Colorado and Puerco rivers, and urged that the leases not move forward.