Court Hears Challenge to Oil and Gas Survey

Court Hears Challenge to Oil and Gas Survey

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Bureau of Land Management didn't insist on environmentally friendly methods when it approved Utah's largest oil-and-gas survey in the Book Cliffs region, conservation groups said Wednesday in federal court.

The work by Veritas DGC Land Inc. of Houston is driving away wildlife and leaving tire ruts that will attract more traffic from all-terrain vehicles, lawyers for Earthjustice and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said.

The groups said the BLM could have limited Veritas to working from the area's dirt roads and trails and using helicopters instead of trampling fragile desert soils.

Veritas attorney Brett Sumner said Veritas has used helicopters to deliver some portable drills. And the company has spent more time raking soil and planting seeds to repair tire ruts than drilling shot holes for the seismic survey, he said.

The conservation groups are battling this project because the search for oil and gas is pushing exploration deeper into the unspoiled Book Cliffs complex of eastern Utah, home to bighorn sheep, elk, wild horses and a thriving black bear population.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Cassell said he would decide after final briefs are filed June 18 whether the BLM followed the law when it approved the survey last October.

Wednesday's court hearing came during the halfway mark for the survey, derived from a series of small explosions in shot holes 60 feet deep.

Acting quickly, Veritas has mapped 231 linear miles of underground geologic formations. It has federal approval but no customer requests or plans yet to shoot another 230 miles of seismic lines, said Veritas sales representative Rick Trevino.

The survey widely overlaps the Uinta Basin oil field, Utah's oldest and largest. Veritas, which supplies the nation's biggest oil companies with intensive seismic analysis, is working to pinpoint the best locations for more wells tapping what are thought to be vast underground petroleum reserves.

Cassell wasted no time Wednesday making his first decision, ruling from the bench that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance had legal standing to challenge the survey. He rejected a Veritas motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Earthjustice attorney Susan Daggett said the BLM didn't study an alternative limiting Veritas' work to roads and trails, allowing it to churn up desert soils instead.

BLM attorney Carlie Christensen said that alternative was so impractical BLM didn't have to study it.

For Veritas to gain useful geologic information, she said, it has to shoot straight seismic lines, which can't be done from any of the basin's serpentine roads.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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