Judge rejects last-ditch move to block helium drilling in Utah wilderness

Helium producers are expected to begin drilling soon inside newly designated Utah wilderness after a federal judge turned down environmental groups’ request for an emergency injunction that would have blocked the project.

In a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras concluded the project might not result in “irreparable harm” to the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness given the safeguards the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] and Twin Bridges Resources have put in place to minimize the so-called Bowknot helium project’s footprint and lasting impacts.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and other groups will continue to challenge the legality of the federal lease the BLM issued to Twin Bridges and the expedited environmental review that resulted in a final decision Dec. 23 approving the project’s exploratory phase.

“They [the BLM] acknowledged the damage at the drill site and the expanded road is permanent. They are going to screw up the landscape where the drill pad is and you will see, hear and be impacted by the operations at the surface,” said SUWA’s legal director Steve Bloch. “We know this operation is going to harm the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness and we are not done fighting it.”

The judge did voice sympathy with the groups’ objections to bulldozers and a noisy 150-foot drill rig appearing on scenic lands near the Green River — set aside by Congress as wilderness less than two years ago just as the BLM was issuing its lease.

“But the Court is not completely convinced that any harm resulting from the approved work will be entirely beyond remediation,” Contreras wrote in his ruling. “The Court expects strict compliance with the mitigation and reclamation measures outlined in the [BLM’s decision] to ensure that damage is minimized to the extent possible and that the area is repaired as required after project completion.”

An inert gas whose value in global markets has been rising like an untethered party balloon, helium is used as a super-coolant in equipment used for scientific research and medical imaging. The United States has the world’s largest reserves of the gas, typically found in highly diluted concentrations associated with oil and gas deposits.

In weighing the nation’s need for helium against the project’s impacts to a protected landscape, the judge found “the balance of equities tip slightly” in favor of the BLM’s decision to authorize the project. Yet Bowknot could be just the beginning of a helium rush in the neighboring San Rafael Desert, located south of Interstate 70 between the Green River and State Road 24.

State and federal leases on undeveloped oil and gas deposits in this area have been bought up in the last couple years by various helium companies looking to cash in on the gas’ surging value. These firms appear to be waiting to see how the Twin Bridges project plays out before developing their leases covering more than 100,000 acres.

In partnership with a company called Pure Helium, Twin Bridges plans to immediately prepare the drill pad and improve an existing access road, according to the company’s principal, Tom Wallace, who welcomed the ruling.

“The Bowknot Project, which uses 5.5 acres of previously disturbed land, all of which is outside any designated wilderness boundary, has the potential to generate up to $150 million in royalties for the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration [SITLA],” Wallace said in a statement issued in response to Tuesday’s ruling. “These royalties will directly benefit Utah schools and educational initiatives, in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars of other state and federal royalties and taxes.”

Company officials have declined to be interviewed but they did agree to provide response to questions submitted in writing.

The drill site occupies an existing clearing that was specifically carved out of the Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness in a practice known as “cherry-stemming.” Twin Bridges holds two state and one federal leases, acquired before the wilderness was designated, which it will reach through directional drilling. The BLM’s authorization allows Twin Bridges to drill wells to each of the two state leases; the company won’t decide whether to drill the federal lease until it sees results from the first, according to court filings.

The drill site could eventually accommodate up to seven wells. The gases they produce would be piped to a processing plant on state land outside the wilderness area.

To avoid disturbing Mexican spotted owls, a protected bird species that nests near the drill site, all construction and drilling must cease during a seasonal closure that runs from March through August. Prior to March 1, according to Wallace’s responses to written questions, Twin Bridges and its partner intend ”to drill an exploratory well in order to test the commercial viability of the subsurface reservoir for helium, which is designated as a critical mineral to produce domestically due to its importance to the United States’ national security and the country’s current reliance on foreign sources, such as Russia and Qatar.”

During the six-month closure, the company hopes, the well will produce gas than can be analyzed for its helium potential ahead of the drilling season that starts Sept. 1.

The company has repeatedly stressed that it would be drilling from “outside” the wilderness area, but critics argue that is a dishonest characterization since the drill pad is on a cherry-stemmed road that runs a few miles into the wilderness. Wallace dismissed that criticism.

“All of the proposed surface activities will take place outside of the wilderness and in full compliance with the provisions of the Dingell Act” — the 2019 legislation that designated 663,000 acres of wilderness in Emery County — ”and statutory intent of Congress when it created the wilderness area, but ensured that the designation did not create a wilderness buffer,” he wrote.

To win their proposed injunction, the environmental groups would have had to demonstrate “a substantial likelihood” they would prevail on the merits of their claims against the BLM. Again, Contreras was not convinced following arguments Jan. 6 he fielded in his Washington, D.C., court. Working against SUWA’s case was the two state trust leases issued two years before the wilderness was designated.

“If the federal lease never existed, BLM would likely still have to provide access rights to the SITLA lease under the Wilderness,” he wrote. “As such, [SUWA’s] arguments regarding the legality of the federal leasing decision are not squarely at issue because no work has been approved on the federal lease.”

According to Bloch, SUWA intends to seek an expedited schedule on its lawsuit so it can be resolved by September, the month Twin Bridges would be allowed to resume drilling.