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Drilling plan near Spiral Jetty raises alarms

Published February 9, 2008 1:07 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Spiral Jetty, not always visible because of water levels, is shown in 2002 after being under water for several years.

A proposal to drill for oil in the Great Salt Lake near the Spiral Jetty has alarmed artists and conservationists around the world who had thought the threat to Robert Smithson's massive earthworks piece was out of harm's way under a year-old settlement.

It turns out that the lease a Canadian oil company holds was not covered in the agreement. Utah officials now are considering whether to allow drilling barges and oil rigs in the lake's Little Valley Harbor, five miles southwest of Rozel Point and the Spiral Jetty.

Drilling could commence this year, State Planning Coordinator John Harja said Thursday. But before a permit is issued, state agencies will decide what conditions the drilling company would have to accept.

"If there's a problem, we won't sign until the problem is solved," said Brad Hill, permit manager for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

In May 2006, conservation groups including Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, Friends of Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake Audubon reached a settlement with the state that pulled back oil and gas leases in the northwest arm of the lake. The agreement covered 116,000 acres, but left out 55,000 acres.

Pearl Montana Exploration and Production of Calgary, Alberta, holds three 2003 leases on the exempted acres. On Jan. 11, the company submitted to Oil, Gas and Mining an application to drill two wells from barges anchored in the lake.

Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, said the drilling application caught her and many others by surprise because the settlement included a promise of advance notice of any lake drilling permit application.

The notice didn't come, but a conservationist spotted it on a state Web site. The news spread quickly in the art community, which reveres Smithson's 1,500-foot-long basalt and soil earthworks sculpture that coils in the Great Salt Lake. The lake's wetlands are among the most important inland shorebird breeding grounds in the world.

A host of e-mails to state officials ensued. In one, Jeffrey Weiss, director of the New-York-based Dia Art Foundation, said, "The expansive natural setting is integral to Smithson's artwork, providing an essential frame for experiencing the Spiral Jetty. Any incursion on the open landscape, including the proposed drilling, would significantly compromise this important work of art."

Normally, a drilling permit on state land can be processed in a couple of weeks. Due to public outcry, public comment is welcome through Friday.

Oil companies have explored the area before and after Smithson finished his work in 1970. In the 1920s, a drilling company built an offshore rig on a pier near Rozel Point. In the 1970s, Amoco drilled in the same spot, but abandoned their leases when oil prices dropped.

The state must honor mineral rights. But leases can be canceled if the operator violates the lease terms, or if the state decides there is an "imminent significant irreversible threat to the public trust," said Dave Grierson, ecosystem manager with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He didn't know of any leases revoked due to the public trust provision.

Key to any decision is a revision of the state's Great Salt Lake Mineral Leasing Plan of 1996, said Western Resource Advocates attorney Joro Walker. The plan is outdated, which is why the state agreed to pull back leases in 2006.

"When you look at what could be the cumulative impact of all these leases, it could be enormous, and no one has looked at that," Walker said.

Join the debate

* Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, of Calgary, Alberta, seeks a permit to drill oil wells in the Great Salt Lake about five miles southwest of Rozel Point and the Spiral Jetty.

* Drilling activities will be based on floating barges anchored to the lake bottom.

* The public may comment on the proposal through Feb. 15 through the state Resource Development Coordinating Committee, E-210 State Capitol Complex, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84114, or http://governor.utah.gov/planning/rdcc.htm