Utah Wars -Oil and Gas Leasing

# Viralizing the Push-Back

December 28, 2008, 9:10 am
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A ground-level report on the oil and gas leasing war in Utah.

By Phil Triolo

What couldn’t be done with letters; couldn’t be done with publicity campaigns; couldn’t be done with 120 enthusiastic environmentalists walking in circles in blustery gale-force winds in front of the Utah BLM Office; was finally achieved by one student, acting impulsively, at the BLM’s auction of leases on some of the most treasured lands in Utah. The student, Tim DeChristopher, simply registered to participate in the bidding process and won the right to lease public lands and explore for oil on quite a few choice parcels of Utah BLM Lands.  Won the right to keep America’s lands in the hands of the people- “Main Street” people in the current vernacular- and out of the hands of the oil exploration companies. At least for the time being.

Tim DeChristopher may actually have accomplished what many others including me only aspired to on the morning of December 19.   All of us understood that the parcels being offered for lease included lands bordering Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Canyonlands National Park.   They included lands bordering the popular the Slickrock Bike Trail and Porcupine Rim—world-class hiking and mountain biking terrain in the heart of Utah’s spectacular redrock country.  They included lands within Nine Mile Canyon, an archeological treasure trove, and within the proposed Desolation Canyon Wilderness, where the Green River has carved a canyon 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon that remains today one of the natural wonders of the West.  Tim understood that that the idea of desecrating these places with oil rigs and the accompanying exploratory activities is so profoundly wrong as to border on evil.  And by the elegant devise of repeatedly raising paddle number 70,  Tim  managed to turn the tables and give our all-powerful petroleum industry the old exploratory shaft.

Pretty Sweet. Totally Righteous. Very Zen. Damned Brilliant. Inspiring, even.

One might ask why Tim was able to bid without showing any credentials or posting some kind of bond.   But apparently our public lands and natural resources are for sale to anyone who may wander in out of the cold.

How is it that all of these parcels of Utah BLM land were available for oil and gas leasing in the first place?  I can tell part of the story, but I’m no expert, just a concerned citizen. I follow these issues because they directly affect how I live and what I can do, and, as Tim pointed out, because I’m concerned for the future in light of persistent environmental threats. I care about these lands because they are liberating to me. They do not need to be economically productive. They need only serve to remind me of the wonder, the raw, quite, enduring power of the earth, of something I am a part of. My spirit is at peace even while I sit at my desk in Salt Lake City, with visions of these places in my mind’s eye.

To this “Nutcake”, toad-stool worshipping, taxpaying citizen, oil exploration in these sacred places is equivalent to committing a rape in a church, a synagogue a mosque or temple. It is unfathomable. Unconscionable. Morally bankrupt. The nadir act of an administration with no respect for American citizens or our natural heritage.

As a member of Red Rock Forests, a small but effective forest advocacy group based in Moab, I’ve been following this issue through email alerts and press reports.   I’ve read that president-elect Obama is opposed to these lease sales and has expressed an desire to overturn them, but I’m also aware that once the lease contracts are signed they may be difficult or impossible to overturn. Continuing public outcry is our best weapon

Up to now I’ve been an occasional and reluctant participant in the public comment process.  The “workshops” and hearings I’ve attended have felt more like window dressing than democracy.   Our land managers have their own agenda and are not really listening to our feedback. The proposed actions are a foregone conclusion: “Drill Baby, Drill!” “Roll, Baby Roll!” Privatize, Baby Privatize”.

But like many Americans I was inspired by the results of the recent election. The “Yes we can!” mentality has permeated my thick skin.  As I watched this leasing program unfold, I knew that I couldn’t just sit this one out.

So I did what any of us can and should do.  I forwarded an email alert from Red Rock Forests, with a personalized introduction, to nearly 100 friends and acquaintances.  A small but satisfying act, requiring just 45 minutes.

Was it effective? Yes, and surprisingly so. I got 4 emails from folks within 24 hours- letting me know that they had contacted their officials to voice opposition to the proposed leases, and that they had forwarded the email on to folks in their address books. In other words, 45 minutes of my time ended up magnifying my voice at least fourfold.

Cool…

The first response I got was from a friend, Joette Langianese, who was at the time a member of the Grand County Council. (Many of the contentious leases, and all of those around Arches National Park and along the Colorado River outside of Moab, are within Grand County.) She assured me that, as I was not the only one to have emailed her, she would talk to the state BLM officials and find out what was going on. I thanked her for her commitment to do so.

She followed up. We met the day after Thanksgiving and, over re-warmed turkey, stuffing and yams, she explained what had gone on in Grand County with respect to the oil and gas leases. She showed me her maps of potential and proposed lease areas. I didn’t take notes, but I did listen carefully, and here’s what I can recall…

Back in 2005 the Utah BLM office had notified the Grand County Council of its intention to hold . The council requested that the BLM delay its leasing plans until Resource Management Plans (RMPs) were in place.   RMP’s are comprehensive management plans, sort of like zoning master plans, that set goals and parameters for land management throughout the region during the next decade or more.  Among many other things, they identify what federally owned public lands will or will not be open to oil and gas leasing.   In 2005 the Grand RMP was still in development; the final document was not completed until late 2008. I had sent in my comments on the plans- and was disappointed with the results, which sanction off-road vehicle use throughout most of the resource area  lands with wilderness qualities. But that’s another story….

When I compared the old (pre- 2008 RMP) map of proposed leasing areas with the new map, it was clear that the BLM had dramatically scaled back its initial proposal, and that many of the leases would have a “no surface occupancy” stipulation, meaning that drilling rigs would have to be situated somewhere outside the lease area, using a slant or lateral drilling technique .

Further, one of Joette’s maps showed that only one of the drilling sites drilled in the entire region below I-70 in Grand County had actually struck oil or gas.

To the degree that Joette and her fellow council members were instrumental in reducing the scope of the leasing proposal I am grateful for their efforts.  We all understand that politics is a difficult balancing act.

But I am not a politician. I am a concerned citizen. I can be an idealist.  And I can foresee a future where our country is no longer addicted to oil and gas. I also understand the importance of  its natural wonders to the region’s economy.  This landscape is a mecca for outdoor recreation and a magnet for tourists from all over the world

The canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers are world-famous for their beauty.  Arches National Park has the highest concentration of natural bridges and arches in the world—its Delicate Arch is an international icon.

Throw in a few oil rigs here and there, a couple of roads, and the landscape so quickly loses its magic.   Fully develop the potential energy resources of the entire region, and you will have a vast new industrial wasteland riddled with networks of exploration roads, drill pads and seismic lines;  immense areas of intensive surface disturbance for oil shale and tar sands, nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, nuclear waste storage facilities, hazardous waste incinerators, coal burning power plants, uranium milling plants and tailings piles.   All these have been proposed or attempted in the past and may be well be attempted again at any time in the future.

I  see no justification for oil and gas development on any of the parcels in Grand County. The land is too precious as it is--raw, red, dusty, dry, desolate, other-worldly-- to allow for very speculative oil and gas exploration (or off-highway vehicles!) to mar its beauty.  You don’t play Russian Roulette, Exxon style, on public lands… not on my public lands, not in my backyard, not on my holy soil, not if I can do anything about it.

I got another email from Red Rock Forests with detailed background information on each of the parcels available for leasing www.Red Rockforests.org/blm dec 2008 oil and gas lease.htm . The email had links to SUWA’s (Southern Utah Wilderness Association; www.suwa.org ) website, along with BLM address and phone number where the information needed to be sent or faxed. Crazy but true: the BLM will not accept public comment via email.

Once again I forwarded the information provided by Red Rock Forests on to my list, and once again got an immediate response.  A couple of “thank you’s”, even.  I found I had forced my own hand and sat down at the machine and cranked out a 2-pager detailing the reasons why I thought specific parcels should be permanently withdrawn from consideration for leasing for oil and gas exploration.

I felt good—especially because it was apparent that a mounting public outcry was beginning to have an effect.   Some parcels on private lands had been withdrawn from the sale, as were others in Nine Mile Canyon and immediately adjacent to National Parks.  This was encouraging.  But withdrawal from the December 19 sale affords no permanent protection from future leasing.    The lands can be offered again for lease at any time.

None of the lands should be available for leasing. Not now. Not in February. Not ever…

Letter written, I contemplated what follow-up information to provide my email list. Others were entering the fray. Robert Redford and the National Resources Defense Council filed suit against the BLM, claiming that the agency had not followed procedures required to allow the parcels to be leased.

Then came an invitation from Red Rock Forests and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to join a protest march on December 19.  By email, telephone, radio and word of mouth, the message went viral across Salt Lake City.    I fashioned a sign and set off to the protest.

The rest is history soon to become folklore. While I and others marched outside on Friday, Tim DeChristopher marched inside and outdid us all.

Interesting opportunities now present themselves. What if Tim were to get the money, that $1.8 million dollars that he bid for the leases? He’s committed no crime if he can make good on his bids. Let’s see: that would require 18,000 of us giving$100 apiece. Count me in. Where do I send the money? Anyone out there with deep pockets? How about some of that bailout cash?

Meanwhile, I’m wondering about the possibilities for one or more Tim DeChristopher Wilderness Areas. I kinda like the ring.  “Let’s go for a hike in the TDC” sounds very right to this “part-time crusader, and half-hearted fanatic”.

Phil Triolo runs an engineering consulting business in Salt Lake City, and is a long-time Utah environmental activist.

Glossary