Drillers snag leases near Bears Ears monument

Drillers snag leases near Bears Ears monument
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The Trump administration successfully sold off all available drilling plots in Utah, including areas near the original Bears Ears National Monument.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold all 43 plots it made available during its online auction Tuesday, bringing in more than $1.5 million in projected revenues. The more than 51,000 acres of land in Utah were snapped up by a handful of oil companies.

The revenue is a boost to Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE’s push to raise more money off public land lease sales.

Plots sold during the auction include areas where conservation groups have protested potential drilling.

None of the lands that recently lost their monument status at Bears Ears were on the auction block, but the environmental groups fear drilling is moving too close to the now smaller park. President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall MORE in December announced plans to shrink the size of Bears Ears and another national monument in Utah.

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Land conservation group Center for Western Priorities (CWP) criticized the sales of land adjacent to the monument.

“The Trump administration’s all-out assault on America’s public lands was on full display this morning in southern Utah. In its rush to drill everywhere, the Interior Department handed out leases on the doorstep of three national monuments that protect our nation’s natural and cultural heritage,” CWP Deputy Director Greg Zimmerman said Tuesday in a statement.

“At this rate, Americans visiting national parks and monuments in Utah will soon be met by a pumpjack at every park entrance.”

Oil companies also grabbed plots where the National Park Service has raised concerns about drilling.

In October, the NPS superintendent who oversees Southeast Utah submitted a comment to BLM on the lease sales of 13 plots close to Hovenweep National Monument. The superintendent warned that drilling there could affect “air quality, dark night sky, scenic value, soundscapes and groundwater quality.” The closest plot is located 3 miles from the monument.

Those plots sold for between $3 and $91 an acre, mostly to Ayers Energy LLC of Bedford, Texas.

The interest shown in the plot sales surprised industry experts and conservationists alike, who viewed the land in Utah as largely unappealing.

“I have noted several times that that area has always been low potential and difficult. It’s difficult geology and ever since the controversy over Bears Ears arose, I’ve been trying to find anybody who is interested in that area to understand it and I’ve been unsuccessful for the past two years,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of energy group Western Energy Alliance.

Landon Newell, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he was shocked by the number of bids for plots largely believed to hold little to no oil assets. 

"It is somewhat surprising that each parcel offered received bids. This area does not have high energy development potential, including for oil and gas," he said. "In the past year and a half there have only been 7 or 8 oil and gas drilling applications received for all of San Juan County — the county where most of the parcels are located.

He also said the results raised questions about whether Interior's decision to roll back monument restrictions on Bears Ears was motivated by drilling.

“The lease sale lends additional support for the belief that gaining access to oil and gas resources was a central motivation for rescinding Bears Ears,” Newell said.

Secretary Zinke has made it a goal to finance the department’s more than $12 billion backlog of upgrades through lease sales on public lands and waters.

In a press conference with reporters in February following the release of the White House budget, Zinke said "sovereignty should mean something, so we’re focusing on that."

"Our growth curve continues to be impressive. As this country focuses on energy dominance, we’ll see this budget request increase going into our parks and schools," he said of taking advantage of drilling on public lands.