SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The latest flashpoint for oil and gas drilling in Utah is around the San Rafael Swell, a region so remote Butch Cassidy hid from authorities there.
Little has changed in the landscape of canyons, reefs, mesa tops and hoodoos, and a state petroleum geologist said Tuesday that the region contains few oil or gas prospects barring an unexpected discovery.
This uplift of central Utah, 75 miles long by 35 miles wide, is federal land without the protection of a national park or monument or designated wilderness. On the edges of the Swell, lease parcels are being offered by a federal land-management agency that is following a Bush administration playbook for opening new areas of Utah for drilling.
The Bureau of Land Management said Tuesday it added a "boots-on-the-ground" test to avoid leasing areas worthy of wilderness protection.
"These parcels are on the east and west flank and northern nose of the Greater Swell area, but certainly not in the heart of it," said Kent Hoffman, BLM's deputy Utah director of lands and minerals.
The Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups filed formal objections on Monday to the leasing of parcels totaling 125 square miles around the Swell, part of a larger auction set for Nov. 19.
Opponents say it's a replay of December 2008, when BLM tried to auction drilling parcels around Canyonlands and Arches national parks. A college student sabotaged the auction by offering dozens of bids he couldn't pay for. Tim DeChristopher spent 21 months in prison.
Around the same time, environmental groups obtained a court injunction blocking bidders from taking possession of 77 lease parcels in wild areas and around Utah's national parks. Months later, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar permanently withdrew the parcels from development.
That lawsuit has since turned into a challenge of six land-use plans for drilling in Utah that were developed by the BLM under President George W. Bush. A ruling is expected this fall from U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball in Salt Lake City.
Environmentalist say the BLM in Utah is trying to pull a fast one again, on the San Rafael Swell.
"The BLM has marching orders that come from, "drill, baby, drill,'" David Garbett, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Tuesday.
Garbett helped whip up a protest demonstration Monday in front of BLM's Utah headquarters. Climbers, hikers and rafters waved placards reading "Frack Off," ''Don't Drill the Swell," and "Drill the San Rafael? Not Swell."
"We don't need to drill every well," said Craig Otterstrom, 76, a coal miner's son who grew up near the San Rafael Swell. "Gas flares, oil spills and roads would not be there if I had my way."
Others came by a busload from Black Diamond Equipment, the Salt Lake City-based maker of climbing, skiing and backpacking gear. CEO Peter Metcalf said BLM was out of touch with Utah's outdoor culture by proposing to lease wilderness-quality lands.
"We own these lands, we do matter, our voices count, and you do make a difference," Metcalf told the crowd.
BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said Tuesday that the agency has the ability to pull parcels from a list leading up to the day of the Nov. 19 auction in Salt Lake City.
Hoffman, who manages auction parcels for the BLM, said nobody really knows how much oil or gas can be recovered from the San Rafael Swell.
"Industry doesn't share their secrets with me," Hoffman said Tuesday. A geologist, he said the Swell resembles a giant fold of land that could contain oil or gas traps deep underground. "It hasn't been fully explored or explored at all. These are by and large exploratory prospects."
Tom Chidsey, a petroleum geologist for the Utah Geological Survey, said only a few of the lease parcels overlap proven deposits of oil or gas, but "you never know" when a big discovery could be made.
"Keep in mind that gas prices are low right now, which takes away a lot of the incentive. They'll face high risks and water problems and low probability of finding gas," Chidsey said. "The only proven production in any of the lease areas is one spot in the very north."