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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Proposal To Drill Near Dinosaur National Monument Draws Ire Of Conservation Groups

A large land mass rises up in the middle of a round canyon.
Copyright Cody Perry/NPCA
The proposed wells are in the Split Mountain Benches area, pictured here.

Conservation groups nationally and in Utah are upset by a proposal to drill for oil on federal public land, less than a mile from the western edge of Dinosaur National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management released an environmental assessment for the project Monday.

The two proposed wells would be visible from the monument, and a road to access the wells would cut through mule deer and sage grouse habitat, according to Cory MacNulty with the National Parks Conservation Association.

“So it’s really not the right place for industrial-scape development and drilling of these exploratory wells,” she said. “We’re concerned that the industrial drilling could damage the views in a really remote quiet area of the park.”

The BLM leased the land where the wells would be drilled to an energy developer in 2005. Leases typically expire after 10 years unless they are developed. MacNulty says this lease falls into that category, but the developer was able to hang on to it by exploiting administrative loopholes.

“From our perspective, the BLM is bending over backwards to keep this lease alive,” she said.

The BLM halted the developer’s proposal to drill the two wells last year, after conservation groups complained that it was inappropriate, but the agency is now allowing the project to move forward. They did not respond to a request for comment.

Landon Newell is an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that filed the complaint. He said federal officials could easily reject the proposal because the land was leased with a caveat that prohibits surface development.

“Rather than really go back and scrutinize this proposal, the Biden administration BLM has essentially just papered over the prior decision in an attempt to allow this company to drill right at the edge of the monument,” he said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Newell said the area where the drilling is proposed, called the Split Mountain Benches, has been classified by the BLM as having “wilderness character.” That means it is eligible to receive protections, like exemptions from road and energy development.

He said the land around the proposed wells will lose that quality if the project goes forward.

“It would be unqualified for wilderness designation. They would cut it out,” he said. “It's a big risk. It’s not some minor thing.”

The BLM is accepting comments on the proposal until June 23.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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