Worried about effects on recreation economy, Moab, Grand County urge feds to cancel energy lease sale

The Trump administration’s Interior Department has long professed turning an open ear to locally elected officials when it comes to land-use decisions.

That consideration, however, does not appear to always extend to Utah’s Grand County, Moab and other Western communities that elect officials who do not embrace President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.

The Moab and Grand County councils are urging the Bureau of Land Management to cancel its proposed sale of oil and gas leases on 85,000 acres near Canyonlands and Arches national parks, arguing that the agency has ignored their concerns about a sale they say would undermine their world-class recreational economy. Visitors from around the globe flock to Utah’s redrock canyon country to enjoy unparalleled scenic vistas and explore public lands by foot, bike, UTV, Jeep, raft and rope.

Obligating these lands to the oil and gas industry would imperil popular places along State Road 313, such as Spring Canyon, Hell Roaring Canyon, Horsethief Point and Lone Mesa, warns a letter Grand County Council Chairwoman Mary McGann sent Tuesday to the BLM’s acting Utah director, Anita Bilbao.

The leasing proposal “threatens the core of our tourism economy by locking in long-term oil and gas leases on and around popular recreation areas that are vital to our local economy,” the letter states. “While these leases could create some temporary jobs to local contractors to clear well site pads and haul in water, the many long-term threats to Grand County’s economy far outweigh any short-term benefits.”

On Sept. 6, the BLM holds its next quarterly online auction to solicit bids on 77 parcels covering 114,000 acres administered by the Moab, Richfield and Fillmore field offices. Derided by environmentalists as a “going out of business sale,” it is the BLM’s last Utah auction before the election that will either put an end to the Trump presidency or cement it for another four years.

Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has signaled a willingness to slow oil and gas leasing on public lands if he wins in November.

According to Kimberly Finch, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Utah office, the agency supports Moab’s outdoor economy. During the sale’s environmental review, officials removed 17 parcels totaling 28,000 acres to benefit recreation values.

“We are proud to manage some of the most well-known recreation sites in the BLM and strive to carefully balance our multiple-use mission when it comes to recreation and energy development,” Finch said. “We provided an additional 15 days for public comment, for a total of 30 days, and we continue to welcome substantive comments through July 9 that will help ensure we are responsibly leasing and supporting our nation’s energy independence.”

But Grand County leaders contend the process was rushed and the review inadequate.

McGann’s letter reminded the BLM what happened the last time the agency pushed out leases on such a vast scale near Moab. During the closing weeks of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, the BLM auctioned leases on tens of thousands of acres around Moab at the December 2008 sale disrupted by then-University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher. The climate activist went to prison for submitting phony bids on the leases that later were found to be offered without sufficient analysis.

Part of the reforms implemented by Barack Obama’s administration included a “master leasing plan” for the Moab area identifying places where leases should be issued, issued with restrictions on surface disturbance, and not issued at all to protect nonenergy values.

About a third of the proposed leases are in San Juan County, whose commission voted Tuesday against sending a letter of support to the BLM. Longtime Commissioner Bruce Adams supports the sale, contending it will generate needed revenue and may not result in actual drilling.

“The lease money would get to entities like the Community Impact Board and the school district,” said Adams, a Monticello rancher. “I don’t think anything is threatening just because you sell the lease. My position is let’s get all the money we can off it, and it doesn’t really present any more risk.”

The leases are in an area San Juan County had previously designated as an “energy zone” but is now captured in the master leasing plan.

“They are in the highest possibility areas for oil and gas we have left in the county, but there are huge restrictions on it. I just don’t think there will be any harm to the environment because it is so restrictive under master leasing,” Adams said. “Our county has lived on extraction. We need those funds in our coffers. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Moab and Grand County worry that a rebound in oil and gas prices could lead to a rapid industrialization of the Big Flat area, which saw extensive drilling and production before the 2014 crash in oil prices.

“From this sale and subsequent development, we can expect industrial impacts, including increased noise, light pollution degrading our dark skies, air quality degradation, an increase in industrial truck traffic and other incompatible developments right at the same locations where our visiting tourists access recreation,” states Moab’s June 23 letter, signed by Mayor Emily Niehaus and all five City Council members.

Even more troubling for city and county leaders was the BLM’s refusal to engage with them while conducting its environmental review. Environmental documentation supporting the September sale falsely asserts that Moab and Grand County were “coordinated with as a leasing partner,” according to their letters.

“We had no meaningful interaction with the BLM regarding this sale proposal (other than our Cooperating Agency request being denied),” the Moab letter says. “Had we been adequately consulted, the city of Moab would have urged a much more robust environmental assessment of the cumulative and far-reaching impacts of oil and gas development activities on recreation and the regional tourism economy.”

Finch said the requests, which came in late April, from Moab and the county came too late for the BLM to accommodate them.

“We have been working closely with the town and county on lease sales and welcome their input,” she said. “We also offered to work on a [memorandum of understanding] to provide them with cooperating agency status for future leases sales and recommended that they submit public comments and reach out to us with specific concerns.”