Lawsuit aims to block US-approved Nevada drilling

By SCOTT SONNER, Associated Press

RENO, Nev. — A rural Nevada group is asking a federal judge to block the sale of oil and gas leases it says will be used for hydraulic fracturing and other development that poses a much greater threat to sage grouse, fish and other wildlife than the U.S. government claims.

The Bureau of Land Management concluded in an environmental analysis in February that energy exploration resulting from the sale of the leases would have little or no impact across about 270 square miles of central Nevada’s Lander, Nye and Esmeralda counties.

But leaders of Reese River Basin Citizens Against Fracking say those assumptions are based on unrealistic expectations that the little interest shown in Nevada’s oil and gas historically will continue. They say the government also is ignoring a recently discovered shale deposit running from southeast Nevada into Utah that some believe could become one of the nation’s most valuable.

“BLM fails to mention or consider the impact of the newly evaluated Chainman formation or the scramble to exploit this resource,” said the lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Reno. “The discovery of this rich shale deposit is a complete game-changer and renders any reliance on past and gas exploration unreasonable, if not disingenuous.”

BLM spokeswoman Erica Haspiel-Szlosek said Wednesday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The Lander County Commission and the Center for Biological Diversity earlier filed protests over the BLM’s plans to sell leases in 102 parcels around Big Smokey Valley between Austin and Tonopah on July 17.

Lawyers who filed the lawsuit Friday on behalf of ranchers, alfalfa farmers and others said that besides wildlife threats, the fracking could suck millions of gallons of water from Nevada’s high desert and undermine the region’s seismic stability.

Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to free oil and gas.

The suit said the BLM failed to analyze the potential for increased earthquake activity, even though it acknowledged that the area “is susceptible to earthquakes” given its geological nature “and the fact that many of the faults present are still active.”

The federal agency said the only impact of the leases is increased revenue to the state, which would receive half the proceeds. But the BLM predicted there’s little chance the sites would be developed, the suit said.

That conflicts with what experts say about the Chainman formation, critics said. The author of a regional study predicted new exploration opportunities in Nevada could create as many as 21,000 new jobs and add up to $1.8 billion to the value of the land.

“The Chainman Shale is believed to have some of the richest shale rock characteristics of oil in the country and possibly the world,” Timothy Considine, an energy economics professor at the University of Wyoming, wrote in September.

Some of the Chainman’s major oil pockets could be far below the ground — from 10,000 to 25,000 feet deep — which dramatically increases drilling costs, Considine said. But major advances in fracking and other technology could change that, he said.

John Dobra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, said in a piece for the Elko Daily Free Press in March that Houston-based Noble Energy is only one of a growing number of companies that are “seeking to use fracking to unlock oil and gas from the Chainman formation.”