In February, despite citizens’ objections and a petition that contained 75,000 signatures, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the lease of 26 parcels of public land for possible oil and gas development south of Moab. All the parcels were purchased for more than $4 million. Almost half the money will go to the State of Utah who will then distribute the funds to various agencies that fund projects in Grand and San Juan Counties. The BLM originally considered 48 parcels but deferred 22 of them, mostly for environmental concerns.
Leading the protesters was longtime resident Kiley Miller and her partner, John Rzeczycki. Their concerns ran deeper than most—years ago they were able to purchase a parcel of land from the Utah State Institutional Trust Administration (SITLA) and build a home, completely off the grid. Selling state lands for private homes is, in itself, a policy change for that agency that has led to the promotion and sale of SITLA land parcels in some very unlikely locations.
For Miller and Rzeczycki, the threat of nearby oil and gas projects meant more commercial traffic adjacent to their property and, of greater concern, water contamination. They specifically objected to two parcels near their home. One was removed from the sale for that reason, but the other remained.
In addition, Living Rivers, an environmental group out of Moab, objected to 24 of the 26 remaining leases. All of them were approved by BLM. Spokesman John Wesisheit noted that development of one of the parcels posed a water contamination threat “to residents of Kane Creek, Bridger Jack Mesa, and Brown’s Hole. These homeowners,” Weisheit noted, “have investments in infrastructure that provides clean drinking water. Other investments at risk include depreciation of property values.” Most of these housing developments were also on SITLA lands once used only for grazing and mining but which, recently, as noted, have been developed for their residential real estate value.
In addition to these specific objections, there is a growing movement to reduce or eliminate further oil and gas development in the area via the introduction of a plan to create “Greater Canyonlands National Monument.” Proponents of Greater Canyonlands call for the immediate protection, by presidential proclamation, of 1.4 million acres of public lands adjacent to the national park. According to their literature, “Proposed oil and gas drilling, tar sands exploration, and potash development—some of which would be within sight and sound of Canyonlands National Park—would carve up this wild landscape, harming air and water quality, fragmenting wildlife habitat, and degrading spectacular scenery.”
Moab environmentalist and monument supporter Bill Love wrote,“The area surrounding Canyonlands will be lost to the public unless protected from the extraction industry.” And he pointed out that, “Monument status will protect our tourist economy and hundreds or thousands of jobs.”
Many others share Love’s view and his suggested bottom line—that the scenic beauty of southeast Utah is simply too valuable, measured in tourist dollars, to be degraded and diminished by the extractive industry.
But again, to be the broken record I have become, a tourist/amenities economy is based by definition on the massive consumption of natural resources, especially including oil and gas. Moab City officials released data last month revealing that commercial construction in the community exceeded $16 million in just the first quarter of 2013. The reality is, a tourist economy desperately needs an ever-growing supply of affordable oil to meet expected increases in tourist visitation. But they fear oil exploitation in their area will adversely affect tourism. In their 3 AM hearts, they WANT the oil…but they do NOT want it coming from their own backyards. I posed the question of putting restraints on tourism in Moab to a few prominent locals during a recent facebook discussion and have been suggesting the same idea via this publication for more than 20 years. The silence remains deafening.
So where? Where do we get the oil to keep Moab and the rest of the country rolling? Clearly, nobody wants to live with less. It’s not an idea that’s even remotely considered by politicians or their constituents or even mainstream environmentalists. Long term threats like climate change fall away when it means making a sacrifice or living with less.
But are there places to exploit oil we can all agree on? While advocates of fracking (Where are you, Hal?!) loathe the film and believe its message is seriously distorted, the documentary ‘Gasland’ has raised alarms for many people across the country about the health hazards generated by the hydraulic fracturing process. Critics insist that stories of water faucets catching fire and shooting blue flames across the kitchen are rare. And they may be right. But no one has conclusively proven that water contamination is an impossibility and more evidence is being gathered to suggest that the threat is real.
And EPA data shows that not only is acquifer contamination a real threat, air quality degradation from thousands and thousands of venting condensate tanks is a major concern too, especially when those tanks are concentrated near urban areas. Urbanites will not accept the idea of a harmonious relationship with large-scale fracking next to the neighborhood school.
So where? For much of the year we’ve been living in a very small town on the western Great Plains. The economy here is depressed—our town once boasted 2500 residents; now we barely muster 700–and what economy does survive has been based on agriculture, mostly wheat, milo and cattle.
But the fracking boom came here two years ago and now farmers compete for the one commodity they and the oil companies both need—water. They fear contamination of the water table but more than that, they fear being unable to compete financially for the water. Some, seeing the writing on the wall, have stopped farming and resorted to selling some of their water to the frackers as the only means left to stay afloat financially, at least for now. But here is where the country grows much of its food. Are Americans willing to put at risk the bread basket of the nation to protect their special interests? Should we resort to getting ALL our food from other countries?
So…WHERE do we get our oil? Most of the same people who promote tourism also oppose the Keystone pipeline. And again, the oft repeated irony raises its ugly head. Most environmentalists oppose extraction and speak endlessly of resource degradation and the dangers of climate change and fears that the end of life on this planet as we know it is near. They seek some comfort in deluding themselves with the myth that if we just build enough wind and solar farms and utilize reusable grocery bags that we can restore the life and vitality—and longevity–of the planet and we can keep on consuming as we always have. And recreating. And promoting the endless growth of things like tourism.
It’s a delusion, of course, if not a lie. But no one’s willing to confess to it, at least not in the immediate future.
One of the most basic of economic concepts is the law of ‘supply and demand.’ As demand rises and supplies fall, the price goes up. Conversely, as demand falls and supplies increase, the price drops. If we really reduced our consumption and didn’t get seduced by the lower price, we could change the world. But we won’t. Show me one self-proclaimed environmentalist, of modest means and bills to pay (including me), who doesn’t instinctively jump for joy when the price of gas drops a dime. It’s not going to happen.
So…we can all complain about the world and insist we’re trying to save it, but more often than not, we wage battles on our own behalf. Kiley hates seeing those drill rigs and worries about her water, and Moabites fret that more oil development will mean declining tourist dollars, and environmentalists complain because they get paid to, and I complain because we get sick of the oil companies tearing up the back roads and increasing local traffic. None of us really wants to do anything dramatic..something that might really turn the world around. Many of us think it’s too late for that anyway.
But that won’t stop us from continuing to delude ourselves or going to rallies dressed as forest creatures, or signing online petitions, or ‘liking’ facebook pages that echo our “cause,” or sending twenty bucks to our favorite “green” group, or buying a Prius and a stash of reusable Kroger bags.
Who was it that once said, “If it feels good, do it?” We like to SAY it, even if we never really DO it…and it always makes us “feel” so much better.
Jim Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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