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Conoco busy inside monument

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Company stakes out leases for possible drillingMore than six months after capping a failed exploratory well inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Conoco Inc. has staked out three leases in the monument for possible drilling.

Conoco spokesman John Bennitt said Friday a survey of the land to determine where the leases sit was aimed at preserving the leases, and there are no immediate plans to drill for oil or natural gas on the sites."We have filed applications for exploratory wells at three locations on state-owned lands within the monument," Bennitt said. "The applications are filed to protect our valid and existing rights. There are no plans to do more."

Staking the land is part of the leaseholding process that keeps the lease from expiring. The move comes after Conoco expressed concerns in a congressional hearing on Thursday over the effect of a massive state and federal land swap on existing mineral leases inside the monument.

Roger P. Pinkerton, Conoco's exploration manager for the mid-continent region, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources the company was concerned the bill would ban mining on its leases.

Development in the monument may be "incompatible with the preservation of scientific and historic resources," the bill says. "Federal acquisition of state school trust land within the monument would eliminate this potential incompatibility."

"The implication of the bill," said Pinkerton, "is that once this exchange occurs, no development will occur within the monument."

"The flaw . . . is that (the bill) purports to protect valid existing rights while preventing further development," Pinkerton said, according to a written copy of his statements. "You can't do both."

Pinkerton recommended an amendment requiring the Department of Interior to manage the leases under the existing state guidelines, but which would allow the department to negotiate swaps with the leaseholder.

But environmentalists saw possible ulterior motives behind Con-oco's staking action.

Scott Groene, issues director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, speculated that in light of the land swap, Conoco may be trying to inflate the perceived value of its leases, hoping they can be swapped for leases out-side the monument.

"It raises a serious question as to if they're using their leases in a hostage-taking situation to force a taxpayer buyout, and they're willing to move some dirt to force the administration into a buyout position," Groene said. "We thought for a long time Conoco was dead and gone back to Texas. Now it appears they're back."

Two of the leases Conoco has staked are northwest of the earlier drill site atop the Kai-par-o-wits Plateau. The third is in the Smoky Mountain Area in the southern portion of the monument.

"All along we have said we will entertain a proposition to swap land," Bennitt said. "If the federal government is going to make a land swap with the state of Utah, well, we have valid and existing rights (to protect)."

Conoco has a total of 58 valid leases on 140,000 acres inside the 1.7-million-acre monument, which President Clinton created by executive order in September 1996.

The Conoco leases are on isolated plots of state school trust land that speckle the monument. Proceeds from the development of those lands are earmarked for Utah schools.

But under the school trust land swap agreement announced by Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt last month, all the parcels of trust land in the monument will be swapped for blocks of land outside the monument.

Negotiators of the lease have said that private mineral leases on state land inside the monument will be traded for federal leases on the acreage.