The Bureau of Land Management is considering leasing over 100,000 acres of public land around Moab to energy companies, raising concerns about effects on both tourism and conservation efforts.
A small energy company, Prairie Hills Oil and Gas LLC, nominated the land earlier this year, and the BLM is considering including it in a September lease sale. The nomination spans Grand and San Juan Counties — including land right next to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
Oil trucks would have to use the same roads as recreationists, which has some local officials concerned about negative impacts to tourism. And while it’s possible the land would not be developed, the land could be tied up for a decade or more. That also has conservation advocates worried.
The bureau declined to discuss the sale through a spokesperson, who wrote “we have not made decisions regarding what parcels we plan to offer.”
If the sale goes forward and the parcels are developed, Moab City Councilmember Kalen Jones said it could hurt their economy, which relies on tourism.
“This is a massive industrial development that traverses some of our prime recreational areas,” Jones said. “This dwarfs everything else already leased in the area.”
If the parcels aren’t developed, the sale could thwart efforts by conservation groups to protect the land through administrative processes, according to Landon Newell, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He cited the development of a resource management plan by the Moab BLM Field Office in 2008 as an example.
“In those plans, the BLM was explicit that they would not manage areas for conservation values because there were existing leases on the ground,” Newell said.
The same thing happened when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance advocated for protecting public land through the Utah Public Lands Initiative process, Newell said.
“We were told on numerous occasions that areas leased for oil and gas were off the table,” he said. “They would not be considered for protection, because it would conflict with ‘valid existing rights’.”
The City of Moab and Grand County have requested to work with the bureau on the environmental assessment of the sale, according to Jones, who said the city’s request is still pending. The BLM is required by federal law to complete an assessment of the impacts the sale could have on the region. Once that is published, which could happen as early as May 21, the bureau will accept public comment on the sale, which is scheduled for September.
“One of the reasons Grand County and Moab requested to be cooperating agencies is so they can get the BLM to do the socioeconomic impact analysis,” said Jason Keith, director of Public Land Solutions, a group that advocates for recreationists. “Which means the BLM is going to have to look at the impact [the sale] could have on recreation and what that could mean for the economy.”
Grand County Councilmember Evan Clapper said that some parts of the county are appropriate for oil and gas development, and he doesn’t oppose the lease sale. But he said an incident earlier this year in which the BLM considered leasing parcels inside Sandflats Recreation Area to energy companies made him believe the agency isn’t taking Moab’s recreation economy into account.
“We’re requesting a seat at the table to bring the local angle to folks who don’t appear to have their finger on the pulse,” Clapper said.
But with tourism revenue down due to COVID-19, some argue a diversified tax base is exactly what Moab and Grand County need.
Clapper said that oil and gas revenues are important to the county, even if the economy is mainly tourism-based.
“Being such a dominant recreation economy, we have to figure out the best way to balance that,” he said. “Especially in these crazy times, lease revenue would be beneficial.”
The federal government collected over $3 million from oil and gas drilling on public land in Grand County in 2018, according to data provided by the Department of the Interior. The state levies a separate tax on oil and gas production called a severance tax, but it does not break the total down by county. The total severance tax collected in Utah in financial year 2019 was $27 million, according to the state tax commission. Based on oil and gas production data from the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, calculations show the state collected roughly $200,000 in severance taxes from drilling in Grand County.
Only a portion of that revenue comes back to Grand County, according to County Clerk Quinn Hall. He couldn’t provide the total amount of drilling revenue the county received last year, but said the money is split between pots, including the hospital and emergency medical services fund.
“We’re grateful for the diversification of income, especially right now because our tourism revenue is virtually gone,” Hall said.