Environmental groups are protesting the sale of multiple oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management parcels in the region, claiming the activity is too close to several national parks in Utah.
Oil and gas extraction could occur within 10 miles of national parks, such as Arches and Canyonlands, and even closer to such remote parks as Canyon of the Ancients, Hovenweep and Bears Ears national monuments, according to a map created by the Center for Biological Diversity and circulated online.
Public lands to the west and northwest of Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients were previously designated by the BLM as an “Alkali Ridge Area of Critical Environmental Concern” (ARACEC) due to “extremely valuable and irreplaceable” archaeological and cultural resources, said Landon Newell, staff attorney for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups protesting the oil and gas lease sale.
The ARACEC was established to protect cultural resources, which the BLM with this sale is “clearly not doing,” Newell said.
“The BLM under the Obama administration decided it best not to lease in this area,” Newell said. “All that was thrown out when the Trump administration came in.”
In March 2018, the BLM sold approximately 29 parcels, followed by another 15 to 20 parcels sold during the December sale. In March 2019, a dozen more parcels will be offered for oil and gas leasing.
The leases are being sold in a “piecemeal” fashion, without consideration for the cumulative effects of oil and gas development in the region, Newell said.
A year ago, President Donald Trump reduced the size of what’s widely known as Bears Ears National Monument, allowing for fossil fuel extraction in areas where it was previously prohibited. The December sale resulted in no leases sold within the former monument boundaries.
“But some of the parcels are quite close to Bears Ears, within 10 miles,” Center for Biological Diversity public lands campaigner Ryan Beam said.
Not everyone opposes the BLM’s leasing of parcels near national parks. Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, of Blanding, said he did not have a problem with the leased locations.
“I saw the opposition against the sale and it’s just environmental rhetoric,” Lyman said. “I wish the BLM had included a lot more parcels. National parks are national parks. Extraction is prohibited inside, not near, the parks.”
Park service officials authorized to speak about the issue were unavailable for comment due to the partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22. President Donald Trump has said he will not open the government until Congress includes $5 billion in the federal budget for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Many park service and other federal employees have been furloughed during the shutdown.
Several news outlets reported that the BLM continues to actively process oil and gas permits in New Mexico despite the government shutdown. That’s a departure from 2013 when approximately 200 applications for permit to drill were not processed during a 16-day government shutdown.
Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining permitting manager Dayne Doucet said on Jan. 7 that he is unsure as to whether the BLM is continuing to process applications for permits to drill in Utah.
The BLM’s Utah website has posted a notice that says, “In the event of a lapse in appropriations, the Bureau of Land Management will be closed. During this shutdown, this website is not being updated and may not reflect current conditions. For your planning purposes, the majority of BLM-managed lands remain accessible to visitors; however access may change without notice. Please be aware that there may be no BLM-provided visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities or road maintenance.”
In addition to obtaining permits from the BLM, oil and gas operators must also obtain permits from the state, Doucet said.
Last year, he said the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining approved 290 applications for permits to drill.
Out of 105 available parcels offered statewide in December, 96 were auctioned, including 14 parcels near Green River, which were sold through the BLM-Moab field office. The Green River parcels are about 60 miles northwest of Moab near I-70.
Leased acreage also includes public lands on either side of U.S. Highway 191 between Moab and Monticello.
There are 116 parcels of land (totaling about 215,000 acres) that were not included in the December sale but will now be offered in the March sale, assuming the BLM reopens. The parcels were withheld from the December sale after it was determined that more time for public comments needed to be given on those parcels because of the proximity to greater sage-grouse habitat. That comment period ended in December.
Lisa Bryant, BLM-Moab Field Office spokesperson, and BLM officials at the Salt Lake City office, were unavailable to comment for this story with the partial government shutdown still in effect as of Wednesday, Jan. 16.
The December lease sale was the first under new guidance from the BLM’s Washington office for streamlining the leasing process, Bryant told the Moab Sun News during an earlier interview. In an effort to speed up the leasing process, public comment periods have been shortened, and in some cases eliminated, under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in December amid ethics investigations.
“The administration moving forward with leasing is a strong signal to companies that responsible development in Utah won’t be obstructed as it had been in the past,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry trade group Western Energy Alliance, said in an email to the Moab Sun News.
“Generally, in these areas of Utah predominated by public lands, oil and natural gas development is a key source of jobs and economic opportunity,” Sgamma wrote.
Oil and gas leases are awarded for a term of 10 years and continue as long as there is production of oil and gas in paying quantities. State governments receive a 25-percent minimum share of the bonus bid and the royalty revenue from each lease issued in that state.
Several parcels were sold to developers for $2 an acre, Beam said.
“It’s not a fair deal for taxpayers on so many layers,” he said. “It represents a fire sale of our public lands of dangerous and dirty fossil fuels.”
The BLM has consistently stated that its quarterly oil and gas lease sales are in accordance with the Trump administration’s goal of promoting American energy independence.
Baseline Minerals Inc., in Lakewood, Colorado, submitted the highest total bid per acre in the December sale: $66 for parcel 234 in the Vernal area. Baseline Minerals also submitted the highest total bid per parcel — $151,040 — for parcel 155, also in the BLM’s Vernal Field Office area.
When the Moab Sun News contacted Baseline Minerals to learn who its customers would be, a spokesperson said that the company typically does not talk to the media. Companies in Houston and New York also did not return calls when asked to comment.
Groups protest, others cite benefits
“I saw the opposition against the sale and it’s just environmental rhetoric.”