The Sky Isn’t Falling

Yesterday, the BLM announced it had collected nearly $3.4 million in fees from an oil and gas lease sale in Utah. The sale, while expected to be controversial went on without a hitch. State BLM director Juan Palma had pulled parcels near the San Rafael Swell last Friday at the dismay of Utah’s Washington delegation and oil and gas industry lobbyists who claimed the sky was falling.

However, the facts tell a different story. The vast majority of the leases that Dir. Palma deferred, are nowhere near existing or even planned oil and gas development, which may be why the industry didn’t purchase seven parcels near the Swell that the BLM did offer at the sale.  That the BLM took a step back from these leases will have no impact whatsoever on the vitality of oil and gas development in Utah. That decision, however, has significant meaning for the protection of Utah’s incomparable San Rafael Swell, which helps fuel the state’s multi-billion dollar recreation economy.

Contrary to industry hyperbole, Utah’s energy industry is booming. Oil production in Utah is at its highest level in more than 20 years and natural gas production in Utah is at its highest level since the 1960’s.

Utah field oil production

Additionally, of the 4.2 million acres of public lands currently under lease in Utah, only 1.1 million acres—less than one-third— are either in production or exploration for oil and/or gas. According to the BLM’s most recent figures, there were more than 1,200 approved drilling permits that went unused between September 2011 and 2012.

Utah natural gas gross withdrawals

This isn’t the first time controversy has surrounded the San Rafael Swell. In 2002 then Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt, asked then President Bush to declare some 620,000 acres of the Swell a national monument. The governor had previously lambasted President Clinton for establishing 11 monuments during his time in the White House.

This time around, the Swell has captured the attention of outdoor business interests in the state. Peter Metcalf, CEO and President of Black Diamond, Inc.— a maker of high-end climbing, skiing and recreational equipment—complemented the BLM postponing the lease of parcels near the Swell saying, “we know the benefits that protecting Utah’s remarkable public lands has for our state’s economy” and describing the decision to move forward with leasing in less sensitive areas as “a win-win solution.”

Public lands are the backbone of Utah’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy and vital to the health of small business owners across the state. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation alone generates $12 billion in economic activity and directly employs 122,400 people.  And in Utah, nearly 74 percent of residents believe public lands support the economy and recreation as opposed to stifling job creation.

So where do we go from here? Just last week at Western Values Project, we released a report highlighting a tool—called a “master leasing plan” (MLP)—the BLM can use to alleviate future conflict and provide stability for both industry and conservation efforts.  By implementing policies like MLPs that take into account natural resource and minerals values when deciding when and where to lease, we have the opportunity to reduce bureaucratic red tape and ensure we leave a lasting legacy for future generations. Our quality of life and economy in the West depend on finding “win-win solutions” and striking the right balance between conservation and energy development. Reducing conflict will require input from all stakeholders, but claims that the sky is falling will only serve to further exacerbate tensions between industry and Westerners calling for common sense.

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