Obama Administration’s Drilling Reforms Face First Major Test Near Moab, Utah


With oil and gas development booming across the country, and some lawmakers calling for opening up special places like national parks to drilling, America’s parks, forests, and public lands face their biggest threat in years. After a national outcry in 2008 over the Bush administration’s drilling policies, the Obama administration set out to reform oil and gas development on millions of acres of public land in the West. In the red rock canyon country of southern Utah, that fledgling reform effort is now on trial.

The arena is in an area around Moab, Utah, encompassing nearly a million acres that abuts Arches and Canyonlands national parks and includes some of the West’s most alluring and economically valuable outdoor recreation sites. There, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is putting the finishing touches on a plan that will steer drilling to areas that don’t conflict with other users of the spectacular landscapes that draw visitors from around the world.

“If this area turns into an industrial site, people will start going elsewhere,” climber Jason Keith explained, against a backdrop of Moab’s famous red rocks.

But the effort to achieve balance between recreation and extraction — explored in a new video from the Center for American Progress — is facing resistance from powerful elements of the oil and gas industry and some local officials, who have dug in for a fight.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, earlier this year called the effort “pretty futile and redundant” and said it was designed to give environmental groups opposed to development “another bite at the apple.”

Last month, the county council for the area that includes Moab, voted unanimously to oppose any changes in the oil and gas status quo.

The BLM’s reform push, announced in 2010, grew out of a firestorm of controversy over the Bush administration’s sale of 77 oil and gas leases in Utah, including some within view of Arches and Canyonlands, near the end of its term. Shortly after coming into office with the Obama administration, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancelled the sales and began the process of overhauling how the BLM does oil and gas development in areas rife with possible conflicts.

The heart of that reform process is a kind of large landscape zoning — called master leasing plans — intended to determine where oil and gas drilling is appropriate and where it is not because other natural resource values are more important. Those can include hunting and fishing and other types of outdoor recreation, clean water, wildlife and the aesthetics of undeveloped federal lands.

Sixteen such plans are under development in Utah, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico. The first plan, which puts strict restrictions on leasing in a large region around Lander, Wyoming, was finished in June.

In the Moab plan, the BLM has proposed four alternatives that range from clear prescriptions on where oil and gas and mining of potash (used in fertilizer) should occur, to no change in how business is currently conducted. The agency will make a preliminary choice among those options this fall, and a final decision next year.

The plan will likely be a model for the rest of the country and Juan Palma, the BLM’s Utah state director, takes that responsibility seriously. “It has taken eons of time to create this magnificent environment that we all enjoy,” Palma said. “And so we need to be very thoughtful, very meditative about what are the kinds of things that we do on this landscape.”