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BLM releases blueprint for oil and gas development, potash mining in Moab area

SALT LAKE CITY — The collision of recreation, conservation and development of oil and gas and potash deposits in the Moab region created the nation's first ever stand-alone federal land management plan that has been four years in the making.

The Moab Master Leasing Plan was released Wednesday by the Bureau of Land Management, covering nearly 800,000 acres south of I-70 in San Juan and Grand counties.

The plan is being celebrated by multiple environmental groups that praise its "balanced approach," but criticized by Gov. Gary Herbert's office as being too restrictive for energy development.

"The proposed plan takes a landscape-level approach to balancing the protection of the iconic scenery in and around Moab and access to the rich energy resources found there,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a prepared release.

“As the first master leasing plan in Utah, the collaborative process that led to the proposed plan should serve as a model for how communities can work together to balance development with the protection of world-class environmental, cultural and recreational resources," Jewell said.

The BLM considered 28,000 comments as part of the agency's implementation of sweeping oil and gas reforms instituted by the Interior Department in 2010. Two years later, the agency began crafting the draft of the planning document designed to serve as a "balanced" road map for leasing and development of energy resources in the region.

Among other things, the final document proposes to:

• Close 145,000 acres of BLM lands to mineral leasing

• Institute "no surface occupancy" stipulations for energy development on 219,000 acres

• Reduce the density of well sites and space new pads up to 2 miles apart

• Identify areas suitable for potash development that includes a "phased" approach to test the feasibility of the extraction of the deposits

The final version of the master leasing plan, which is under public comment for a month and will be reviewed by Herbert's office over a two-month window, proposes to close lands adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks to new mineral leasing and development — an area that has been rife with controversy because of oil and gas activity.

Lisa Bryant, a spokeswoman with the BLM's Green River and Canyon Country, said the master leasing plan does not impact existing oil and gas leases.

Projects for development in the Big Flat and Hatch Point areas are temporarily on hold as leases once held by Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. are being reassigned to new owner Wesco Operating Inc. Bryant said there may be changes to development proposals that include wells and pipelines that were previously submitted.

Kathleen Clarke, director of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, urged in public comments to the BLM in 2015 that it refrain from invoking "costly and flawed" development approaches that are not justified, including the one detailed in this master leasing plan.

Pointing to the agency's own analysis, Clarke said the restrictions will result in nearly $2 billion in lost economic output and $277 million in lost state and local revenues over the next 15 years. The restrictions will cut the mainstay of San Juan County's tax base, of which 45 percent was derived in 2013 from energy-related properties, she said.

"Energy and mining jobs are the highest paying jobs in Grand and San Juan counties, paying more than twice the local average, making the projected loss of over 1,500 jobs especially painful for local economies," she wrote.

The plan, however, was praised by environmental and conservation groups upon its release.

“Simply put, the Moab Master Leasing Plan is a significant step toward better BLM management of oil, gas and other minerals in the heart of Utah’s red rock country,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“The MLP gives industry certainty where leasing and ultimately development can take place and also makes plain the terms and conditions for those activities. Likewise, the public and local communities now know that many of southeastern Utah’s stunningly beautiful canyons and mesas won’t be marred by the sight and sound of drill rigs and pump jacks. BLM’s hard work on this plan has definitely paid off,” Bloch said

The region is home to the Paradox Basin, which is estimated to hold between a quarter to a third of the nation's domestic potash resource. Four years ago, it was also home to the nation's highest producing oil well.

Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, said the BLM's plan for the Moab region is a model for future energy development on public lands.

“They have responded to what diverse stakeholders have told them: that we need to balance all the economic values of public lands, and not favor some at the expense of others," he said.

Both Grand and San Juan counties are part of Rep. Rob Bishop's Public Lands Initiative, which was released in final form last week amid the continuing controversy over a possible Bears Ears National Monument.

His bill, widely criticized by a majority of environmental groups, proposes to set aside high-value areas for recreation but also create so-called "energy zones," in which the state of Utah would carry out the permitting process for the development of energy resources.

That provision — which does not exempt mineral development from adherence to existing federal environmental laws — is intended to streamline the permitting process, which Bishop said is plagued by bureaucratic backlogs.

Southeast Utah and the Moab region in particular became a flash point of controversy for oil and gas development in 2008 after environmental activist Timothy DeChristopher falsely bid on BLM lease parcels to protest industry activity.

The leases, he and other critics contended, were too close to Arches National Park. Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew 77 of the leases that had been offered and ultimately deferred the majority of them for development.


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