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Enviros sue to stop fracking near Petrified Forest National Park

Three environmental groups sued the Bureau of Land Management Monday to prevent fracking for natural gas and oil in more than 4,000 acres of public land near a national forest in Arizona and the state’s most important aquifer.

When the bureau issued the drilling leases last year near the Petrified Forest National Park, it used decades-old environmental impact data, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and other plaintiffs who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for Arizona. The plaintiffs claim the agency failed to consider new drilling technologies or environmental science, including predicted effects of climate change. 

“It’s reckless and illegal to sell fracking rights on public land without any environmental review,” Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This lawsuit will force the government to follow its own laws to protect northern Arizona’s water, wildlife and public lands.”

The Coconino Aquifer Leases also encompass land near the Navajo Nation, rural towns and the Little Colorado River. 

The plaintiffs, including the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians claim the oil and gas leases are a thin veil for the extraction of helium, which has become an important resource as the world faces a shortage of the element and prices rise. 

Regulations require lease applicants to agree “not to develop oil and gas wells ‘with the principal purpose of recovering the helium component of natural gas’ without express permission from the Secretary of the Interior,” according to the 38-page complaint

Helium can be extracted as a byproduct of natural gas drilling, according to the plaintiffs. 

Two of the leases went to a Canadian mining company, Desert Mountain Energy, which declared the area potentially “one of the world’s leading sources of helium,” the complaint states. 

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The BLM did not assess the current potential impact at all, but relied on a 1988 impact study and concluded that there were no new environmental concerns that would require the consideration of alternatives, according to the suit. 

“Instead, the agency relied on a thirty-year-old environmental analysis that did not anticipate oil and gas development, and did not take a hard look at such impacts or the significant new information that has arisen about the local environment, wildlife, new oil and gas technologies, and climate change,” plaintiffs said in the suit.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter decried the plan to inject acid and water under high pressure to force out oil, gas and helium in the environmentally-sensitive region.   

“We need to know the impacts of this proposed acid fracking on the water resources and demand that everything possible is done to protect the aquifer and the Little Colorado,” she said in the plaintiffs’ joint statement. “Unfortunately, the Trump administration is putting them at risk without even evaluating the impacts.”

More than 80,000 people submitted letters in opposition of the leases, according to the plaintiffs.

“In the absence of any environmental analysis, our community and environment are exposed to unquantified risks,” said Erik Test, a founder of the non-profit No Fracking AZ. “Our health, safety, and future demand that we make informed decisions while we still can,”

The plaintiffs are asking the court to vacate the leases because they allegedly violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land and Policy Management Act.

The BLM regional office in Phoenix did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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The Tepees in the Petrified Forest National Park near Holbrook.