Gas driller faces eviction from Utah’s Ute reservation

By Paul Foyer
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) July 2010

The Ute Itribe is threatening to kick a gas producer off an eastern Utah reservation in an escalating dispute that has the company questioning the tribe’s sovereignty.

Ute Chairman Curtis R. Cesspooch made the threat after a federal judge in Salt Lake City declined to resolve the bitter dispute, opening Questar Corp. affiliates and a spin-off company to possible eviction from the Uintah-Ouray Reservation.

Judge Dale Kimball granted an injunction against tribal action July 1 but ruled July 16 that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over a contract dispute. The dispute could be headed for arbitration, but a lawyer for Cesspooch said that Questar-related companies could instead face eviction by a tribal court in 10 days.

At issue is an effort by a Questar spin-off company, QEP Resources Inc., to expand one of its five gas-producing plants on the reservation over the objections of the tribe and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cesspooch issued a strongly worded statement after the tribe’s victory. He was angered by Questar’s argument in court that part of the reservation where it operates ceased to exist as Indian Country a century ago. The EPA’s position in court papers is that all of the company’s gas-processing plants are on a reservation.

“We had invited Questar onto the reservation to develop our minerals, but instead of acting as our partners, they have harmed the tribe and told us we do not exist as a people in our own reservation,” Cesspooch said.

The Ute tribe has stopped work on an expansion of one of QEP’s gas processing plants and a new power line. Cesspooch said the company refused to obtain the tribe’s permission or permits for the expansion.

In court filings, the company maintains that in 2005 the tribe gave it “complete access” to the reservation for 20 years. The tribe counters that the agreement requires Questar to obtain permission for new projects.

The dispute developed as the EPA filed a 47-page complaint in 2008 against Questar Gas Management Co. for permit and emissions violations at each of its gas processing plants on the reservation.

Questar Corp. spun off Questar Gas Management Co. into a separate company July 1 called QEP Resources Inc.

A spokeswoman for the Denver-based company, Emily K. Kelley, said July 20 that QEP had no comment on the court fight.

“QEP strives to be a good neighbor in all of the communities where it operates and has done such since 1922,” she said in an e-mail.

Cesspooch said QEP has been anything but a good neighbor.

“Questar was attempting to come onto our land unlawfully to build a huge gas processing plant expansion ... in direct violation of existing federal and tribal regulatory requirements governing use and access of tribal lands,” he said in the statement.

Cesspooch added, “The tribe is also considering instituting a widespread eviction and banishment of Questar and its affiliates from all tribal lands if Questar continues to engage in unlawful activities resulting in trespass on the lands of the reservation that threaten the health, safety and welfare” of more than 3,100 tribal members.

The tribe’s Denver lawyer, Thomas W. Fredericks, said no eviction was under way, but that if the tribe makes good on the threat, it could be ordered by a tribal court in as quickly as 10 days.

The EPA’s lead attorney on the case, Michael J. Boydston of Denver, and a spokesman for the agency, Richard Mylott, declined to comment.