Why A Decision to Drill 4,000 Oil Wells Affects Us All

Despite the fact that the oil industry is in one of its deepest downturns with many companies going bankrupt and hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off (demand is shrinking and supply is growing), in early April the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced an enormous drilling proposal spanning a 35-mile-long swath of eastern Utah. The Canadian firm Crescent Point Energy is seeking approvals to drill nearly 4,000 new oil and gas wells in an area encompassing an estimated 115,000+ acres across federal, tribal, state and private lands.

In addition to the wells themselves, the proposed project will also require building 863 miles of roads; 693 miles of pipelines co-located with the proposed roads; 170 miles of cross-country pipelines; 400 miles of trunk pipelines; five salt water disposal wells; five produced water treatment facilities; 20 central tank batteries; four gas processing plants; eight oil storage areas; and, four equipment storage areas. According to Deseret News, “the drilling would take place over 30 years, with the productive life of each well estimated to be between 20 to 40 years. The total project life, including reclamation efforts, would be up to 80 years.”

This is a project of enormous proportions and enormous potential.

Rightly so, the BLM is seeking public input. A project of this magnitude affects us all. Currently, they’ve taken the first of a thousand steps by beginning to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, but with so much at stake, they should be implementing a more inclusive, comprehensive process.

Roads and well pads around Huerfano Mountain in San Juan County New Mexico.

Roads and well pads around Huerfano Mountain in San Juan County New Mexico.

A project of this scope will have impacts far beyond the lens of an Environmental Impact Statement. Yet, typically these projects are guided by only three voices: the agency, the company that’s proposing the project, and the environmental community. The BLM needs to be thoughtful as they move forward and allow for a broad spectrum of public perspectives and input into the process.

HECHO advocates for the BLM to implement “smart from the start” planning, also known as Master Leasing Plans (MLPs), to allow input from multiple stakeholders about how public lands should be used. MLPs would allow for a variety of issues to be considered, including: hunting and angling, farming and ranching, cultural resource protection, conservation, recreation, property ownership, local government, and oil and gas development. While this particular project doesn’t fall within the guidelines for a required MLP, that doesn’t mean the same principles cannot be applied.

First and foremost, the decision process should be inclusive. Decision-making about where to drill typically excludes diverse stakeholders, including Latino communities that hunt, fish, camp, and use public lands. As a result, our access to public lands for recreation, subsistence, education, and traditional cultural uses are impeded. And, worse yet, sometimes the landscape, wildlife, or water is irreparably damaged.

This project encompasses the majority of the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, originally created as a sanctuary for migratory birds that currently supports over 350 fish and wildlife species and offers one-of-a-kind recreational opportunities. The Uinta, Duchesne, and Green rivers and Dry Gulch Creek all flow though the proposed project area, supporting the blue-ribbon fisheries of Pelican Lake and Brough Reservoir. These ecosystems are potentially in harms way and that impacts not only the environment, but also Latino communities who use these places for recreation, rely upon them for sustenance, and have cultural connections and historical remnants found within the boundaries.  Currently, Latino perspectives are missing from these planning conversations even though they should be engaged, given the value of these lands and waters to our communities and our way of life. 

Ouray National Wildlife Refuge

Ouray National Wildlife Refuge

By law, the BLM has to publish their proposals and plans with the Federal Register, but who really regularly visits their website to keep up to date on what’s going on? What HECHO proposes in this situation can be called “Federal Register Plus.”  We say: do what is required by the law, and then some (Plus). There are several newspapers in Salt Lake City and Denver – the BLM should also let them know about this project beyond the Federal Registry. Also, local radio stations (including Spanish speaking ones) should be prompted to publicize this situation and invite more diverse stakeholders to the table.

While we all use oil and gas, some places are too sacred and fragile to be destroyed by development. “Smart from the start” land management planning approaches development with a broad diversity of lenses and directs it to areas of least conflict, and protects important resources, such as air, water, wildlife habitat, tourism and recreation-related economic opportunities.

For many of us, these are lands we have enjoyed for centuries and want to protect for future generations. A “smart from the start” approach is one of our strongest tools for helping achieve that goal for our people and all the people of our country.

Master Leasing Plans seek to develop energy on public lands in a responsible and thoughtful way.

Master Leasing Plans seek to develop energy on public lands in a responsible and thoughtful way.