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Oil and gas industry will pounce if Bears Ears shrinks

First Published      Last Updated Jun 19 2017 11:39 am

Drilling » Since 2013, 105,000 acres along the monument’s eastern fringe have been ‘‘nominated’’ for oil and gas leases that could be sold in case it shrinks.

In making their case for rescinding Bears Ears National Monument, Utah officials have downplayed the potential for oil and gas development on the lands that five tribes persuaded President Barack Obama's administration to set aside under the Antiquities Act.

But a review of Bureau of Land Management records indicates that industry does hope to tap hydrocarbon deposits under parts of the Bears Ears region that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may soon recommend removing from the monument.

If President Donald Trump's administration shrinks the 1.3-million-acre monument, some of these sought-after parcels could be leased for drilling, particularly given the new administration's pledge to promote an "America first" energy policy and lower hurdles to extraction on public lands.

Since 2013, energy companies have unsuccessfully asked the BLM to lease more than 100,000 acres for oil and gas development within or near public lands that became the monument, according to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity.

The environmental group mapped the 88 requested parcels, which are clustered along the eastern fringes of the monument, near Bluff on the south and Hatch Point on the north. The areas have long been subject to exploratory drilling.

"Opening this area for more oil and gas drilling and fracking is going to harm the reasons this monument was established," said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Arizona-based group. "This is a clear and present danger. It's not theoretical and the only thing staying in the way is monument status."

Under President Barack Obama's Bears Ears proclamation on Dec. 28, the monument's 1.3 million acres were withdrawn from future mineral leasing.

But existing mineral rights are honored, such as those held by Kirkwood Oil and Gas, one of the firms that also had asked to lease additional lands inside what are now the boundaries.

The parcels sought by industry before the designation are in terrain that the Legislature designated the "San Juan County Energy Zone," a 2.7-million-acre swath where oil and gas development "would be given preferential consideration by the land managing agency," under a 2015 bill.

Much of the area now included in the monument was deemed open to oil and gas leasing under the BLM's 2008 resource management plan, although Cedar Mesa was largely off-limits and much of Hatch Point was subject to strict limits on how much drillers could disturb the land surface.

Under Interior's new direction, leasing, permitting and inspections are top priorities. If the monument designation changes, lands proposed for leasing within the current boundary would still have to undergo site specific reviews, which could result in added conditions on the work, officials say.

If the boundaries contract, "we will, of course, continue to carefully consider all nominated parcels to determine if they are appropriate for leasing and continue to conduct an environmental review before offering any leases for potential oil and gas development," said BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant.

Although lying mostly outside of Indian reservations, the Bears Ears region is an ancestral homeland to Navajo, Ute and Puebloan tribes, whose members consider these lands sacred. Drilling here would be wholly incompatible with the tribes' vision, which is given a special advisory role in monument management under Obama's proclamation.

"Opening the monument to development will threaten cultural and natural resources that can never be replaced. These lands are worth more than the minerals beneath them," said Natalie Landreth, an attorney with Native American Rights Fund, a group that has said it will challenge any move to shrink the monument. "The only correct decision is to keep Bears Ears as is."

Her group represents the Zuni, Hopi and Ute Mountain Ute — three of the five member tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Local elected leaders are equally upset that Obama designated the monument, arguing it will stall economic development in Utah's most impoverished county and robs locals of their ability to control their future.

Because the monument designation prevents new mining operations, and "threatens" existing mines and exploration, it "eliminates the valid multiple use of just under one-third of San Juan County by the folks who live there," the Utah Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands wrote Zinke last month.

Sentiments like these prompted Zinke to urge the president this week to "right-size" Bears Ears and narrow its boundaries to specific places he believes warrant protection for their historic and scientific value, while allowing multiple uses elsewhere.

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