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Coon: Don't surrender public land for private gain

Published January 25, 2013 5:21 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like everyone else in Salt Lake City, I've had a difficult time making out the Wasatch Mountains the last few weeks. The mountains have been cast in a gray haze — smog produced by various industrial processes that are operating in the greater Salt Lake Valley as well as the abundance of internal combustion engines.

The state's failure to mount a serious effort to tackle our wintertime smog problem made me particularly rankled by the Tribune opinion column headline that greeted me recently:"Utah deserves to own, operate federal lands" (Jan. 3).

This column is part of the increasing political rhetoric from many of Utah's elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, about how Utah should take control of federal lands because the federal government is blocking Utah's ability to develop its "energy resources."

This rhetoric is full of false assertions as well as questionable assumptions about what is best for Utah.

The column argues that if only more lands were under state control, oil shale and tar sands companies could invest in those resources.

The reality is that oil shale and tar sands lack viability because of economic forces and inadequate technology, not federal government restraint. As most people understand, developing oil shale has been a card shark's game for nearly a century. For example, in Utah, there are currently at least 140,000 acres of non-federal lands under lease for tar sands or oil shale development. But to date, these lands have produced no commercially viable quantities of oil.

If industry cannot produce a commercially viable product from the 140,000 acres in Utah, how would making more land available do the trick? Or is this really about making more land available for speculators to make a quick buck? Considering that our governor has more expertise in real estate than governing, perhaps the second question is more applicable.

It is true that the Government Accounting Office recently issued a report noting that there is a lot of potentially recoverable oil from oil shale and tar sands in Utah: (http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/590761.pdf). But that same report also points out that that there is "uncertainty" regarding any commercially viable technologies to extract oil shale. In other words, no one can do this now; they just say they can.

But, in any case, do we really want a massive influx of dirty energy development? Just think of standing on Dead Horse Point and having the view of a few dozen drilling rigs and the accompanying gravel roads for access, as an example. As the GAO report also says there are major impacts to air quality, water quality, land and wildlife from oil shale development that have not been addressed; as well as serious and troublesome socioeconomic impacts.

And what does all that extra energy in the form of crude coming into Salt Lake Valley's refinery row mean for our air quality and our health?

No, Utah doesn't deserve to own or operate federal lands. Utah can't afford it. Which means those lands would be sold or leased on the cheap to the private sector.

Allowing politicians to give away public resources for private interests is bad policy. Managing our public lands in the West for the good of all is good policy. Combining that policy with strong measures to actually clean up our air is even better policy.

Bill Coon is a 32-year resident of Dry Canyon, part of unincorporated Salt Lake County west of Herriman. He is past president and member of the Back Country Horsemen of Utah, past president of Friends of Sound Horses and past member of the Bureau of Land Management's Resource Advisory Council.