A federal judge plans to decide next week whether to block the release of oil and gas leases in Nevada that critics say will be used for hydraulic fracturing and cause more environmental harm than the Bureau of Land Management admits.
Lawyers for the Reese River Basin Citizens Against Fracking urged U.S. District Judge Miranda Du on Wednesday to issue an emergency order to prevent the BLM from formally issuing the leases later this month in an area stretching across about 270 square miles of central Nevada.
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Lawyers representing the BLM said that while the leases were sold in July, there won't be any formal agency action until they actually are issued as early as Sept. 15. They argue the matter isn't ripe for legal challenge until BLM decides whether to issue additional permits allowing drilling.
Du indicated she tended to agree with the government lawyers but won't issue a ruling until the end of next week.
"My concern is the plaintiff may have acted too quickly in filing the lawsuit and not waited for final agency action," she said after more than two hours of oral arguments in her Reno courtroom.
Reno attorney Glade Hall said the BLM's environmental assessment was inadequate and had no basis to conclude that issuing the leases will have little or no impact on fish and wildlife or precious groundwater supplies in the high desert that opponents fear could become contaminated, depleted or both.
He said the BLM's argument that the agency may not actually follow through with issuing the leases was a legal smoke screen.
"Why go through the process of the sale if they do not intend to issue the lease?" he asked. "It seems to me there is a game that is being played here."
Hall said BLM has supplemented the flawed environmental assessment with additional information that was never subject to public comment.
"It is simply a prop for a decision that already has been made," he said.
Dominika Tarczynska, a Justice Department lawyer for BLM, urged Du to dismiss the lawsuit and require the plaintiffs to refile their challenge when the time is right, if they so please.
"There currently is no proposal to engage in hydraulic fracturing," she said. She said the agency is still considering four protests challenging the leases and could deny some or all of them, or place additional stipulations on any development.
"Until that is completed, there is no final agency action," she said.
Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to free oil and gas.
Lawyers who filed the lawsuit 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.
Hall said BLM's assumptions there will be little impact are based almost exclusively on unrealistic expectations that the little interest shown in Nevada's oil and gas historically will continue. He said the government 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.
Hall argued it would be a waste of judicial resources to toss out the case now only for it to be refiled in weeks to come.
Du acknowledged that may seem impractical.
"But if the court doesn't have jurisdiction, the court doesn't have jurisdiction," she said.