- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - An environmental group hoping to halt a Uinta Basin drilling project is suing federal officials in U.S. District Court.

WildEarth Guardians in a lawsuit filed earlier this month says a proposed 400 wells operated by Berry Petroleum Co. will trample sage-grouse habitats in the Ashley National Forest and worsen air quality in eastern Utah.

“The oil and gas industry is turning public lands in this region into an industrial wasteland,” Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth energy program director, told the Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1klNTIr ).

He called the Ashley National Forest the “last refuge” for the wildlife, untrodden forest and clean air and water in Utah. “This fossil-fuel madness has to stop,” Nichols said.

The U.S. Forest Service has approved a part of the operation in the Ashley National Forest, 11 miles south of Duchesne, where officials have given Berry Petroleum permission to drill 155 wells, said Lola Bird, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service and Utah-based officials at both agencies.

The agencies have declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.

Calls to Berry’s Houston-based parent company LINN Energy on Friday were not immediately returned to The Associated Press.

The oil field is expected to take up to 20 years to drill and produce oil for 50 years.

In 2011, the bureau fined Berry $2 million, citing inappropriate operations on the company’s Uinta holdings. After that, the Interior Department proposed barring the company from future oil and gas leasing on federal minerals for three years, according to the company’s financial disclosures. Berry resolved the matter without acknowledging any fault, the Tribune reported.

WildEarth also contends in court documents that the planned project puts public health at risk along the urban Wasatch Front, where most of the basin’s waxy crude is trucked for refining.

The company produces 7,500 barrels of oil and gas a day from various fields.

Some of the leases were issued before the 2001 Roadless Rule, which limits development inside areas without roads. Before the rule went into effect, the Forest Service approved 57 miles of new roads and upgrades on 20 miles of existing roads. Tankers are expected to transport oil, and an 87-mile web of pipelines is set to carry the oil.

Six have begun drilling, 28 have been approved but haven’t begun yet, and about 50 more are pending approval, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

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