SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that an exploratory project for helium can proceed in Utah's Emery County, rejecting claims by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance that federal land managers failed to appropriately weigh its potential impacts.
Specifically, Judge Rudolph Contreras said the benefits of the Bowknot Project next to the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness outweigh any potential environmental impacts because of the supply shortage of helium, a critical gas widely used in medical technology such as magnetic resonance imaging as well as computer hard drives, airbags and cleaning rocket fuel tanks.
"The public undoubtedly has an interest in preservation of the environment. However, the court credits BLM's argument that helium is a critical resource in short supply globally," he said. "Given the relatively limited scope of the approved work and the country's need for this resource, the balance of equities tips slightly toward denial of injunctive relief."
Contreras noted the project's proposed water use — which in part drove opponents' objections — is minimal, amounting to 0.002% of total water use in Emery County and just 0.8 % of all mining water use in the county.
"Moreover, all required water would come from existing municipal water rights; the approved work would not further deplete any surface waters or aquifers," the judge wrote in his ruling.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups successfully obtained a temporary restraining order from the federal court in Washington, D.C., and sought a permanent injunction to stop the project from moving forward.
The groups contend the project was rushed in the waning days of the Trump administration and was happening too close to the wilderness area.
Proponents, including Utah's congressional delegation, countered that the project's surface disturbance will be minimal and happen in an area that the Bureau of Land Management said lacks wilderness characteristics.
Contreras agreed that surface disturbance is minimal enough for the project that it will be addressed via remediation.
The judge noted the protected wilderness spans more than 54,000 acres and surface disturbance required by the Bowknot Project occurs entirely outside the wilderness area.
"Given the relatively limited scope of the ground disturbing work, the required mitigation and reclamation measures, and the unclear future of the project, the court is not convinced that plaintiffs have established irreparable harm," the ruling said.
The project is being pursued by Pure Helium and Twin Bridges Resources.