Cody M. Perry: Dinosaur National Monument should be protected from oil drilling

Drilling so close to monument is tone deaf to the looming environmental crisis.

(Photo courtesy of Rig To Flip) The western Dinosaur National Monument boundary, an area called, "The Race Track." The proposed drill site is located in the lower left foreground. Split Mountain behind that.

Emerging into the warmer days of spring, the irresistible urge to get outside and adventure always accompanies the budding leaves.

For me, the ideal destination is Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado and northeast Utah. It’s among more than 400 other units of the National Park System, that for Americans, represent the places and the historic events that created who we are as a people, but also the places we can be most proud of. Dinosaur National Monument is more than a national icon, it’s like home.

Oil and gas infrastructure overwhelms large swaths of land south of Dinosaur National Monument, impairing wildlife corridors, degrading air and water quality and contributing to the climate crisis. As these impacts continue to be made clear, it is imperative that lands should be protected from future development. So why would we allow two exploratory gas wells to be drilled right next to the monument’s western boundary?

I was surprised to see that late last month an operator submitted two new drilling applications to the Utah Commission on Oil, Gas and Mining for a set of wells located roughly 2,000 ft off the western boundary of Dinosaur National Monument. These are for Bureau of Land Management lands, in an area categorized as sensitive wildlife habitat with wilderness characteristics and visible from a large swath of Dinosaur’s western backcountry. The drilling location is little more than a mile away from the world famous Carnegie Fossil Quarry, an internationally significant paleontological resource. The drilling company has proposed using explosives to blast a new road on top of a narrow mesa that shares the monument’s western boundary.

The vast majority of energy development has been located south and west of the monument is the Uinta Basin: Utah’s largest oil and gas producing zone and the world’s largest known oil shale deposit. Tens of thousands of oil and gas wells have been sunk here over the last century, with most of them densely packed 30 miles away from Dinosaur National Monument. Even at this distance, the cumulative emissions from energy development in the Uinta Basin can be detected on air quality monitors in the monument. The area seasonally dips into ozone nonattainment, annually exceeding federal health and environmental safety standards.

In Utah, U.S. Interstate 40 runs on an east-to-west trajectory south of Dinosaur National Monument and across the expansive Uinta Basin, creating a physical delineation between lands of intensive energy development to the south and lands more oriented toward grazing, wildlife habitat and recreation to the north. While energy production in the area has been down for years, tourism around Dinosaur has remained stable. A 2018 National Parks Report found that Dinosaur National Monument generated over $20 million in economic benefits to the Vernal area.

As the COVID pandemic has pushed more and more people outside, Utah visitors are seeking places to escape increasingly crowded national parks. Allowing an exploratory oil well to be drilled so close to a place like Dinosaur National Monument is not only tone deaf to the looming climate crisis, but an abandonment of the national park idea and devalues a sustainable economic resource.

Dinosaur National Monument is a world class wonder of the National Park System. Located in Colorado and Utah, the monument is an extraordinary arrangement of geography containing a diverse assemblage of plants and animals. There’s 11,000 years of known cultural resources with 36 tribes and pueblos having significant connection with the land.

Dinosaur National Monument displays the most complete geological record of any national park unit, over 1.1 billion years of sequential Earth history including extraordinary fossil deposits extending back some 540 million years. Over 90% of Dinosaur retains wilderness character, full of unconfined solitude, iconic river canyons and some of the darkest night skies you’ll ever see.

Simply put, Dinosaur National Monument is exceptional, marvelous, phenomenal. Nothing should be allowed to encroach on those values or heritage.

BLM has indicated they intend to move forward opening a 30-day comment period in early May. These are some of Utah’s wildest public lands, lands with at best a trivial amount of oil and gas but where development would scar the land for decades — if not permanently.

Given the extent of energy development nearby, the growing scarcity of solitude, the urgent need to reduce emissions from oil and gas development; it’s completely inappropriate to develop a set of wells on the doorstep of such a national treasure. Your voice is needed.

Cody M. Perry

Cody M. Perry is the founder and director of Rig To Flip, a film company specializing in storytelling about the Colorado River Basin’s land, water and people. Rig To Flip works with nonprofits, federal land agencies, outdoor brands, tribes and rural communities to create conservation stories that build understanding, engagement and stewardship.