The Bureau of Land Management is looking to authorize exploratory drilling near the western edge of Dinosaur National Monument, sparking an outcry from conservationists who regard the project as an insult to Utah’s natural heritage and say it offers little economic upside to Utah.
An obscure Texas-based company called Ashley Valley Operating Co. proposed drilling two wells within 2,000 feet of the monument at the base of Split Mountain with the hope of producing sufficient oil to warrant drilling the rest of the company’s 9,145 acres under federal leases. This land has been under lease for oil and gas development since the George W. Bush administration but has yet to be drilled after 16 years, according to Cody Perry, an environmental educator who has closely tracked the proposal.
“Dinosaur National Monument is among the birthplaces of the American conservation movement. It’s where not only the Echo Park battle played out [concerning a dam proposed in 1950s on the Green River], which was the major catalyst of the  Wilderness Act, it’s been a catalyst for protecting places that tell our collective story, our societal struggles,” said Perry, who is based in Grand Junction, Colorado, and works for a nonprofit called Rig To Flip. “To minimize it as a place where we can field speculative oil and gas plays is completely inappropriate and tone deaf to the climate crisis.”
On Monday, the BLM released a revised environmental assessment and will accept comment on the proposed wells through June 23. The proposal includes rights of way to access the two drill sites and waivers to the original lease stipulations that bar any surface disturbance. Without the waivers, the oil company would have to directionally drill from off-lease. The project includes upgrades 3.6 miles of existing road and construction of 1.6 miles of new road to reach the second well.
“These are BLM-identified lands with wilderness character. The access roads and all of this have to go through sage grouse priority habitat,” said Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA. “You literally couldn’t think of a worse place to be bending over backwards to facilitate development. And it’s really troubling that they’re doing this in a Biden administration, because this is directly at odds with all of the stated goals and objectives of the administration.”
For SUWA and other critics, the project’s underlying leases exemplify some of the flaws in the federal oil and gas leasing program that invite speculation and development in places where it doesn’t belong.
“The fact that we are still fighting zombie oil and gas leases from almost two decades ago less than half a mile from a national park unit clearly demonstrates the system is broken. These leases in an area identified as sensitive wildlife habitat with wilderness character should never have been allowed in the first place,” said Cory MacNulty, southwest associate director at the National Parks Conservation Association. “Despite lying idle for years past the lease expiration date, industry is trying to swoop in with minimal public participation, asking for waivers from protective stipulations, to drill two exploratory wells next to a national treasure.”
The Biden administration recently paused new leasing on public lands while it reviews the program, a process that is expected to result in proposed reforms that industry might not like.
The Dinosaur drilling is to occur on one of six leases issued back in 2005 over the objections of environmental organizations. At the time, the leases came with stipulations barring surface disturbance. However, the BLM is now considering waiving those stipulations, which would allow the drill pads and access roads to be built so close to the monument boundary.
If the first well fails to produce “favorably” the company would begin drilling the second well within six months.
“The Applicant has committed to minimize initial ground disturbance to the greatest extent possible and in a manner consistent with” the resource management plan for the BLM’s Vernal field office, the EA states.
Such promises are cold comfort to the environmental community, whose activists contend the Bush administration deliberately revised the management plan in 2008 to encourage development, even in places abutting Dinosaur and other areas valued for their natural and scientific attributes. Productive oil and gas wells blanket much of the Uinta Basin, but the basin’s eastern edge where the monument is located is seen as an area of low potential.
The monument was established in 1915 under the Antiquities Act and expanded to its present boundaries in 1938.
“Ninety percent of the monument is recommended for wilderness since 1978,” said Dan Johnson, the monument’s chief of interpretation. “For the park service, if it’s recommended that means we manage it as wilderness.”
The National Park Service has not staked out a public position on the drilling proposal, but it is engaging with its sister Department of the Interior agency to ensure impacts to the monument are minimized.
“We will continue to work with the BLM and provide comment and continue to do so to address any concerns to NPS resources,” Johnson said.
The leases were set to expire in 2015, but instead they were “unitized” and suspended, allowing the drilling company to sit on them indefinitely while it sought approval to drill. Federal oil and gas leases are supposed to be developed within 10 years or they expire, but the BLM has been generous with lease suspensions, which effectively grant leaseholders additional time.
Once the BLM approves this project, the clock resumes ticking on the leases leaving the oil company a narrow window of about two months to begin drilling or risk losing all six leases.
These leases have changed hands over the years and are currently held by Ashley Valley’s parent company, Hoodoo Mining and Production Co., an LLC based in Houston. A voicemail left on a phone associated with the two companies was not returned.