The Bureau of Land Management has scheduled a Feb. 19 auction of 48 oil and gas leases covering 79,923 acres spread throughout Grand and San Juan counties. Last month, the BLM accepted public comments identifying issues of concern about the proposed lease sale. The BLM Canyon Country District, which includes the Moab and Monticello field offices, has completed a draft environmental assessment of the proposed lease parcels. That study has been forwarded to the BLM Utah office for further analysis and review, said BLM Moab Field Office Manager Rock Smith.
“They decide which parcels go out to lease,” Smith said.
Local resident Kiley Miller and others say two lease parcels under consideration, identified as 039 and 042, border the Glen Canyon Aquifer, the sole source aquifer for Moab city culinary water and residents in Spanish Valley and much of the northern section of San Juan County.
Miller’s home on Black Ridge Road several miles south of Moab in San Juan County is located within one-half mile of one of those proposed lease parcels. She said concerns about the impacts to water and air quality, along with the possibility that mineral extraction could involve hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” compelled her to launch an online petition via MoveOn.org to gather signatures in an effort to stop the sale of those two parcels. Fracking involves injecting pressurized fluid into shale, creating fractures in rock formations that more readily facilitate the extraction of oil and gas deposits.
As of Wednesday morning, 3,254 people had signed the petition at signon.org/sign/protect-the-moab-utah.
“Whether they frack or don’t frack, we don’t know how the underground water works,” Miller said. “It’s too big of a risk and I don’t think we should be taking a chance on what keeps us alive down here.”
Miller said she is not opposed to mineral extraction but she believes the locations of wells should be carefully considered.
“I understand the need for oil and gas drilling,” Miller said. “I drive a car. I use propane for cooking. But we need to act responsibly. If Moab’s water gets contaminated, what does Moab do? The ramifications are enourmous.”
Smith said lease parcels are usually nominated by the oil and gas industry and any leases that go into development are subject to further federal regulations.
“And in the case of those around [Miller’s property] most of the land is already leased,” he said. “The boundary [the BLM has identified] of the sole source aquifer showed that those two parcels are outside it. That doesn’t mean there may not be issues, though. When we do the [final environmental assessment] we’ll look closely at that... There’s still a possibility that some of these parcels will get deferred.”
Don Ogaard, chief of leasing support services for the Utah BLM, said the draft environmental assessment is expected to be available for public comment on Sept. 21. The 30-day comment period is scheduled to end Oct. 19. The BLM will analyze all comments received and will address them in the final environmental assessment, which is expected to be completed in November, he said. At that point, a 30-day protest period will begin, giving concerned citizens and government agencies the opportunity to formally protest part or all of the sale to the state BLM director.
Ogaard said it is likely that some proposed lease parcels will be eliminated through the process.
“Based on my experience, it’s much more likely that not that not all the parcels will make it through the EA process,” Ogaard said. “
Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, has spent years working on public lands issues – especially as they affect the tourism industry – in Utah. She served on the state BLM Advisory Committee for eight years and says one problem with the agency’s leasing program is that the system favors the oil and gas industry.
“The system could use some upgrading,” Korenblat said. “Many of the [proposed] leases are in Lisbon Valley, and that makes sense. It’s just these couple of outlying leases that may impact the aquifer. The Moab BLM has a lot of good people who try to do a good job for the area. But sometimes they get to these situations where it just doesn’t seem the situation works within the system... The whole system favors the resource extraction folks.”
Laurel Hagen of the Moab-based Canyonlands Watershed Council, said one significant problem is that a formal study has never been completed to assess the Glen Canyon aquifer and how that aquifer works. A proposed water study has been approved by congressional committee twice in the past several years, but Congress has refused to fund it either time.
“Until we get a reliable groundwater map of the system [mineral development] is one of those things we have to be very careful about,” Hagen said. “There may be some level of potential threat to the groundwater here. It’s probably not very high, but we don’t know for sure.”