The Bureau of Land Management’s Utah state office on Friday decided to defer 99,960 acres of proposed oil and gas leases in and around the state’s magnificent San Rafael Swell. This region has been considered for everything from National Monument to National Park status and with good reason. It’s a wonderland of red rock towers, spires and canyons. In any other state it would already be off limits to development, but in Utah things are more complicated.
Predictably, the oil and gas industry and Utah’s junior Senator Mike Lee are crying that “the sky is falling.” Lee even said this was evidence that the BLM has been taken over by “radical environmentalists.” Not even close. Utah, like most other western states, has a surplus of federal lands that are under oil and gas lease but not in development. Most recent figures show that of the 4 million acres of BLM lands in Utah under lease, only roughly 1 million acres are in development. There’s also thousands of drilling permits that companies are holding in their back pocket but not acting on. In addition, Friday’s decision leaves more than 44,021 acres of oil and gas leases to be sold off next week. And the nearly 100,000 acres pulled off the table on Friday could also be offered in a subsequent auction.
This particular lease sale is just the latest fallout from a rush by the Bush administration near the end of its tenure to impose on Utah six deeply flawed management plans for more than 11 million acres of BLM lands in the state. Those plans — one of which has been significantly overturned by a federal judge, and five of which are under legal challenge — essentially would have turned much of Utah over to the oil and gas industry and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
The San Rafael Swell area in Utah is prized for its dramatic scenery, recreational opportunities, and archaeological sites. Removing the threat of oil and gas drilling was hailed by a leader in the outdoor recreation industry as a return to needed balance on pubic lands.
“This is wonderful news for Utah’s outdoor industry,” said Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond, Inc., an outdoor equipment maker based in Utah. He noted that the BLM’s decision left tens of thousands of acres to be leased in the upcoming sale, and said that millions of other acres previously leased have yet to be developed.