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The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has lodged formal protests with the Interior Department, seeking to hold up oil and gas leasing on tracts near Moab.

Rights to develop oil wells were auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management last week, with bidding reaching $200 an acre, but the leases haven't been issued yet.The controversy is generating interest because this scenic desert landscape near Moab is popular with campers and hikers nationwide and valuable to bighorn sheep and other wildlife. In addition, it snuggles close to Canyonlands and Arches national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.

The interest in - and concern about - oil developments near Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point were spurred by the recent discovery of untapped petroleum reserves. Columbia Gas Development Co., Houston, struck oil recently while using a new technique called horizontal drilling, which can extract the mineral from narrow layers.

Around 2,300 barrels per hour gushed from the well during initial testing, and Columbia hopes to extract 900 barrels per day when development begins. Natural gas is being burned at the wellhead, said Scott Groene, staff attorney for SUWA, based in Moab.

The well is alongside the U-313 highway on the approach to Canyonlands National Park's Island in the Sky District.

On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management offered leases on 129 parcels of land. Of these, companies and individuals submitted bids on 60, many in the vicinity of the oil boom. Companies bid for the right to develop 54,272 acres out of the 134,211 acres offered.

Just as the auction began, SUWA filed appeals on 37 of the tracts. Of these, it turned out that two tracts had been deleted from the offering by the BLM itself on Friday.

Two different reasons were cited for the appeals, lodged with the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals in Washington, D.C.

One set of tracts is within the 5.7 million-acre wilderness proposal supported by most environmental groups in the state and embodied in HR1500, the wilderness bill sponsored by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. The other reason is tracts in the BLM's Grand Resource Area lack adequate environmental analyses, according to the group.

"We're just reviewing the merits of the correspondence that we received," said Robert Lopez, chief of mineral adjudication for the BLM's state office in Salt Lake City. So far, he said, leases on the tracts remain unissued. Companies have 10 days to come up with money due.

"I would say there was some spirited bidding," Lopez said.

Lowest acceptable bid was $2 an acre. The highest actually bid was $200 per acre, for Tract 101, in the "Paradox Play" oil area.

That bid was submitted by William Peterson, a Farmington resident who was one of 40 registered bidders. Tract 101 is relatively small, so the total bid submitted by Peterson for it was a bit more than $36,000.

The BLM is analyzing each application to drill separately, without writing an adequate assessment that would analyze the impact of all the oil proposals, Groene charged. It's "death by a thousand small slices.

"Maybe each slice isn't going to wipe out the habitat, but cumulatively they may."

He said a well proposed by Coors Energy Co. near the head of Little Canyon, about seven miles north of Moab, is "the worst one of all . . .

"They are going to upgrade 101/2 miles of road, the Gemini Bridge Road, which is used heavily by mountain bikers," he said. In addition, Groene charged, the project would damage bighorn sheep habitat.

"They should not be drilling oil and gas everywhere," Groene said. "And yet the BLM turned around and issued leases in wildlife habitat, near the national parks, in Wayne Owens' wilderness proposals."

Some tracts offered in the lease sale were not appealed, said Steve Koteff, staff attorney in SUWA's office in Salt Lake City. The group is determined to force additional analyses before leases are actually issued, because it fears that lessees could claim a right to develop once that stage is reached.

The BLM is "very reluctant to do full NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis without being forced to," Koteff said.


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The American way

William Peterson, a Farmington man who submitted the highest per-acre bid for an oil and gas lease during a Bureau of Land Management auction last week, is mellow about an environmental appeal on his tract and others. The appeal could hold up development of oil wells.

"I guess that's why we live in America," Peterson said. With formal protests filed, there's a chance to sort out the situation, he added.

"Everybody ought to be able to tell what he thinks is right," he said.