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By Alan Kovski
Recommendations sent to the White House Aug. 24 to reduce the boundaries of some national monuments may make little or no difference to oil and gas companies, even if President Donald Trump agrees to them.
Full details of the recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have not yet been released, but the Interior Department said some boundaries likely were set by former presidents for political reasons rather than to protect objects of historical or scientific interest as mandated by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Zinke indicated he will not recommend eliminating any of the 27 monuments reviewed.
Interior released statements emphasizing Zinke’s determination to allow public access for hunting and fishing, recreation, and traditional uses, plus a general reference to economic development. The statements did not mention the potential for further energy development.
The latest remarks by Zinke as well as Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and experts on Utah oil and gas development suggest the odds are low of a boundary change that would pave the way for a surge of oil drilling in or near two big national monuments in that state, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“The oil and gas elements in this are really minimal, if at all,” Bishop said. He told reporters the proposed changes in Bears Ears, if reinforced by appropriate federal legislation, could be significant to local livestock grazing rights and overall management of public land in the area.
“There has been drilling in there in the past, but no one found anything of significance,” John Rogers, associate director of oil, gas, and mining in the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told Bloomberg BNA regarding the Bears Ears monument.
Even when things were booming in the oil industry a few years ago, while oil prices were high, limited activity took place in what later became the Bears Ears National Monument, Rogers said. President Barack Obama created the monument in the last days of 2016.
Big companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. departed an oil-producing region near Bears Ears more than a decade ago. EOG Resources Inc. has held two permits to drill just outside Bears Ears for a couple of years but has not made use of them.
Over the decades, about 75 to 100 exploratory wells were drilled in what is now Bears Ears, said Michael Vanden Berg, energy and minerals program manager of the Utah Geological Survey.
“Every one of them was a dry hole,” he said.
In the oil industry, a dry hole means a well that encountered no oil or gas at all, or not enough for commercial development.
Bears Ears covers 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, also in southern Utah, covers 1.87 million acres and is known to include high-quality coal reserves and a part of one oil field. Both areas also contain ancient rock art, and Bears Ears especially is known for some ancient ruins.
Of the 27 national monuments reviewed by Zinke, the two in Utah are the most controversial, largely because of their size and strong opposition by Utah’s government and local interests.
Vanden Berg, like Rogers, will not say there is no chance of oil or gas in Bears Ears, but that he assumes erosion of the land probably allowed any oil or gas to escape ages ago, if in fact oil or gas ever existed in the area.
Bears Ears is on the edge of what geologists call the Paradox Basin region of oil and gas fields in San Juan County, the largest field being Greater Aneth. Oil and gas production has been slumping in the area for years.
Chevron sold its production assets in the Greater Aneth area in 2004, and Exxon Mobil sold its production assets there in 2006. Resolute Energy Corp., which bought large percentages of those assets, is now trying to sell them. Most of the other companies listed as producers in San Juan County are relatively small and privately held companies that avoid high-risk exploration.
Grand Staircase-Escalante is a vast area of plateaus and canyons in southern Utah. Forty-seven exploratory wells were drilled with little results before President Bill Clinton created the monument in 1996.
The Upper Valley oil field, discovered by Tenneco Oil Co. in 1964, was a rare commercial success in the area and is still producing. The field had 22 active wells, including five inside the monument, when Clinton made his decision. Production from Upper Valley continued later, both inside and outside the monument, under ownership of Citation Oil & Gas Corp.
Grand Staircase-Escalante also is known to contain a reserve of high-quality coal on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
The Interior Department did not release details Aug. 24 about Zinke recommendations on Grand Staircase-Escalante or any changes he may have made to his earlier recommendations on Bears Ears.
Zinke in June issued a tentative recommendation to reduce the size of Bears Ears. He also recommended tribal co-management, with the understanding that co-management would require Congress to amend the Antiquities Act.
Bishop said Congress should amend the act not only to allow co-management but to restrict the use of the law to its original intent. It was written to protect objects of historical and scientific interest but was never intended to allow a president to determine the management of enormous swaths of public land, he said.
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