The Bureau of Land Management is considering industry-driven requests to lease tens of thousands acres for oil and gas development near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

In recent months, firms sought to nominate up to 360 parcels on these scenic lands popular for dispersed outdoor recreation outside Moab.

Only 230 of these parcels, covering up to 150,000 acres, are open for leasing under a “master leasing plan” the BLM adopted in 2016 for the Moab area, according to an analysis conducted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Still, these remaining nominations, or “expressions of interest,” could represent a huge expansion of potential fossil energy development near or on places frequented by climbers, hikers, campers, river runners, off-roaders and mountain bikers.

“The BLM must deny these egregious requests to open oil and gas development outside of Arches — on lands double the size of the national park itself,” said Erika Pollard, associate Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The BLM has the opportunity to reject this industry wish list that will only advance the climate crisis and threatens our national parks and treasured public lands, the Colorado River and the incredible outdoor experiences that millions of people come to enjoy each year.”

BLM officials said many of these nomination filings, however, are incomplete and are not under consideration for potential leasing.

“According to our preliminary review of the nominations, the BLM has received less than 70 nominations, or expressions of interest, for oil and gas leasing to be considered for the September 2020 lease sale,” said Kimberly Finch, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Utah office. “For the Moab Field Office, the preliminary acreage is about 25% less than what SUWA estimates.”

The agency has only just begun to review these nominations, and it will be a few months before its Moab office completes the environmental analysis that will guide a final decision.

“It does not serve the public’s best interest to discuss these proposals in detail before they have been properly analyzed,” Finch said. “We want the public to have the right information, at the right time, and using the right process. The National Environmental Policy Act provides a time-tested and orderly process for engaging the public.”

According to SUWA attorney Landon Newell, the group’s analysis is based on data the BLM shared with the National Park Service and appeared on the National Fluids Lease Sale System as of last month, the BLM’s clearinghouse for leasing information. The group discovered that hundreds of parcels were being nominated around Moab last winter and took a closer look.

For its analysis, it excluded the 130 parcels that were nominated on lands that are not available for leasing, then mapped the 230 parcels that are available. On Friday, Newell said, he discovered that many of the parcels in his analysis now appear to have been consolidated on the leasing system website and others dropped altogether.

Still, industry is seeking numerous parcels within five miles of Arches and Canyonlands’ northern boundary, with some as close as a half-mile. Some border the Green River, where it winds through Labyrinth Canyon, and many are within five miles of the original northern boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Nominated leases span the Colorado River west of Moab, as well as Mineral Bottom Road, Duma Point, Gold Bar Canyon, Hatch Canyon, Horse Thief Point, Hunters Canyon and Hell Roaring Canyon, according to SUWA’s spatial analysis.

“Leasing opens the door to development. It is an irretrievable commitment of resources. It commits the BLM to going down that path. They are offered for 10-year periods,” Newell said. “There’s no reason to be offering leases for development in these areas.”

The area north of Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, a recreation hot spot known as Big Flat, already harbors a productive oil and gas field, but it has not seen much drilling since the 2014 crash in oil prices.

Finch stressed that the BLM is nowhere near proposing to offer any of these parcels for development.

“To properly analyze oil and gas nominations, dozens of BLM subject matter experts carefully review the nominations, including fluids, minerals leasing and air quality specialists, wildlife biologists, botanists, archaeologists, field managers, and program and policy experts,” she said. “We caution the public from drawing too many conclusions based on the raw data in the public-facing side of the database.”

The Bush and Obama years

During the Obama administration, the BLM had achieved a way to balance the needs of industry and those of outdoor recreation and conservation on public lands where hydrocarbon and Utah’s geological scenery overlap, according to Cordell Roy, a retired national park superintendent who served as the National Park Service’s Utah coordinator from 2003 to 2011. It was during Roy’s tenure that the industry-friendly George W. Bush administration sought to lease some of this same land with minimal analysis or public involvement as Bush’s tenure in office was coming to an end.

Sold at the 2008 auction disrupted by climate activist Tim DeChristopher, these leases were later invalidated by Obama’s Interior Department. The controversy led to reforms, such as the “master leasing” process initiated by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who identified several Western landscapes, mostly surrounding parks, that are valued for their nonenergy resources. Within these designated areas, the BLM was to identify lands suitable for leasing and others to be shielded from energy development.

The 735,000-acre Moab master leasing plan, or MLP, finalized in 2016, was the only one in Utah to reach the finish line. Environmentalists fear industry now is seeking to gain access to much if not all the unleased land within the Moab MLP.

“This enormous expansion could upset the delicate balance on the landscape between protected public lands, tourism and outdoor recreation, and energy development,” Roy wrote in a recent op-ed. “Such a huge expansion of oil and gas drilling would threaten the national parks and their visitors, degrade local air quality and potentially change the Moab landscape forever.”

The Trump administration scuttled the master leasing process as part of its “energy dominance” agenda, calling for the elimination of barriers to fuel production on public land. Under a policy change ordered by Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, the BLM is expected to offer any parcel industry nominates for leasing as long as it falls in an area designated as open to energy development.

As a result, environmentalists challenge lease proposals at the nomination phase, long before the BLM issues a formal decision to offer them.

“Why are they nominating 150,000 acres on the doorstep of national parks?” Newell asked. “It was never envisioned that the MLP would be weaponized like is happening here. It looks like a going-out-of-business sale. That was never the intent.”

Many of the parcels proposed for leasing were nominated anonymously, but most of the expressions of interest were filed by a company called Prairie Hills Oil and Gas LLC, headquartered in Big Lake, Minn., according to federal data. Publicly available information indicates the company has a stake in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field but no presence in Utah.

Prairie Hills filed its nominations Jan. 20 and 22, about six weeks before a March 2 cutoff for the September auction, potentially one of the last under Trump’s current watch.

Trump clock winding down?

Newell suspects energy speculators are rushing to nominate as many parcels for energy leasing as they can in case the president fails to win reelection. Under the leadership of either Democratic candidate, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, the Interior Department would make it much harder to lease federal land for drilling, especially in places with scenic, geologic, cultural and natural values.

A Bismarck, N.D.-based lawyer named Craig Larson on Wednesday replied to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment to Prairie Hills but was unable to say much.

“We pretty much don’t have anything to offer you at the moment as to what our plans are,” Larson said.

Meanwhile, other obscure companies, with names like Ram Land Services and Six For Six Land Services, have filed expressions of interest blanketing entire areas elsewhere in Utah.

At the end of 2018, 2.6 million acres of public land was under lease in Utah but only 1.1 million acres in production, according to BLM data. That suggests industry already has plenty of land to work with, particularly at a time when oil prices are again cratering, this time in response to a coronavirus pandemic that has put a severe damper on travel.

These expressions of interest cost nothing to file, yet they obligate the BLM to conduct environmental reviews to determine whether to lease the parcels and what stipulations should be attached to their development, regardless of whether the nominating party has the ability to drill. In most cases, the nominators file behind a cloak of anonymity.

The current wave of nominations poured in at a time when the BLM is stressed by the coronavirus crisis and right before its Utah office was rocked in a March 18 earthquake. The agency’s Salt Lake City headquarters at The Gateway are shut down until June while repairs are done, Finch, the BLM spokeswoman, said.

The recent mass nominations of BLM parcels for oil and gas follow a curious pattern that has become common if not routine during Trump’s time in office. Companies with little track record in oil and gas production are nominating or buying leases in Utah, often for as little $1.50 an acre, in particularly sensitive places.

This happened in northwest Utah, where a firm called FIIK Exploration bought numerous leases along the historic Central Pacific rail corridor west of the Golden Spike National Historical Park. And, in recent auctions, a company called Ayers Energy (alternatively spelled Ayres Energy on some BLM filings) has bought most of the federal leases in and around Montezuma Canyon and Alkali Ridge. Rich in Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloan, artifacts dating back centuries, these lands east of Blanding were included in the a master leasing plan that the BLM initiated but failed to complete before Obama left office.