The Interior Department has received over 230 nominations for oil and gas leases covering more than 150,000 acres across southern Utah, a push that would bring drilling as close as a half-mile from some of the nation’s most famous protected sites, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
The petitions for the Bureau of Land Management’s September lease sale, some of which come from anonymous potential bidders, could transform a region renowned for its pristine night skies and stunning topography. Some of the parcels are also within 10 miles of Bears Ears National Monument’s current boundaries.
“This is a scale like nothing we’ve seen so far as far as leasing outside our national parks,” said Erika Pollard, associate director for the southwest region at the National Parks Conservation Association. “ . . . It’s a big chunk of the public land out there.”
The bids were listed in the agency’s National Fluids Lease Sale System, which is available online. The nominations are sometimes winnowed down by bureau officials following a review.
While the BLM can reject nominations as it prepares lease sales for auction in September, Trump administration policy tilts decisions in favor of energy development.
In an email Tuesday, BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney said the bureau was still in the process of reviewing lease nominations and had not reached any final decisions.
“All lease sales undergo an environmental analysis to determine potential impacts of development before they are put forward for lease,” she said, adding that the agency could not discuss details until that assessment is published this spring.
“The BLM has the duty to manage land for multiple uses,” she added, “which means balancing a variety of activities on public lands, including energy development and recreation.”
Some of the nominated leases lie just a half-mile from Canyonlands, with 25 of them within five miles of its boundaries. Others are 1½ miles from Arches, with more than two dozen within five miles of its edges. Both parks are popular tourist attractions: More than 1.5 million people visit Arches annually.
Environmentalists, including Pollard and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Steve Bloch, said the black night skies would be obscured by lighting and methane flaring if the nominated area is developed to such a degree. The profound quiet of the landscape would vanish. The air quality and views — visibility for 100 miles on a clear day — would be disturbed, they warned.
The pressure for development is increasing both northwest and southwest of Moab, Bloch said, which could harm the region’s recreation industry.
“No one is traveling to Moab from around the world to see flaring, or to see oil and gas operations,” Bloch said. “And if even a portion of these leases are sold, it would fundamentally change the nature of Utah’s Red Rock Country from an area that has internationally renowned dark night skies and natural quiet to an industrial zone.”
Just a few weeks ago the BLM pulled two leases slated for auction on Moab’s Slickrock Trail because of protests from the state’s Republican governor and local officials, who argued the legendary mountain biking spot should be off-limits to drilling.
Trump officials have pressed to expand oil and gas drilling across the country, both on public lands and offshore. Since January 2017, the federal government has auctioned off more than 9.9 million acres of leases to oil and gas firms: A little more than half the area slated for drilling is located onshore.
According to a recent analysis by the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, if all the fossil fuels buried in those sites was extracted and burned, it would translate into between 1 billion and 5.95 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the air. That upward measure is equal to half the annual carbon output of China, the world’s biggest emitter. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has been linked to climate change.
It is unclear whether the companies nominating parcels for bidding in southern Utah plan to develop those leases or sell them instead.
Prairie Hills Oil and Gas LLC, which has nominated the majority of parcels, appears to be a small company with one well in North Dakota. They have submitted more than three-quarters of the nominations, according an analysis by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Washington Post.
The company, headquartered in Big Lake, Minn., could not be reached for comment.
Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma, whose group represents oil and gas companies, said in an email that the sites selected by bidders lie within an area the bureau has already identified as acceptable for drilling. These management plans are negotiated over a long period with public input, and the agency sometimes puts special restrictions on leases near sensitive areas, she added.
“The majority of the nominated parcels are several miles outside park boundaries,” Sgamma said. “Parks do not carry an additional buffer zone emanating around them.”
Matt Kirby, NPCA’s director of energy and landscape conservation, said the BLM’s lease sale in Utah “is part of a pattern we’ve seen across the West.”
He noted that the administration has auctioned more than 24 million acres, even if bidders have leased less than half that amount. Last month, a federal judge in Idaho voided nearly 1 million acres of oil and gas leases on Western lands.
“They’re leasing as fast as they can, in as many places as they can, regardless of whether it’s close to national parks,” he said.