Moab mayor calls on Utah governor to oppose Sand Flats drilling

Herbert previously voiced opposition to leasing proposal near Zion

Water sits atop slickrock inside Sand Flats Recreation Area, above Moab’s sole source aquifer, and where the Bureau of Land Management has proposed two parcels for oil and gas leasing. Photo by Carter Pape

During a press call Tuesday morning to discuss oil and gas leasing in the Sand Flats Recreation Area that the Bureau of Land Management proposed after two parcels were anonymously nominated for development, Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus called on Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to oppose the proposed leases.

Herbert previously opposed oil and gas leasing proposed in Washington County, near Dinosaur National Monument and Zion National Park. Now, the BLM is considering two parcels in Sand Flats for similar development.

“My request today is actually one for our governor, Gary Herbert, that he will repeat the action he took … in Washington County and that he will support Moab City in the removal of parcels 11 and 12, protecting Moab’s precious drinking water and, for these two parcels, prioritizing the recreation economy over resource development,” Niehaus said.

In July 2017, when the BLM was considering to put three parcels near the national monument out to bid for oil and gas leasing, Herbert stepped in to voice his opposition.

“As the parcels are near the boundary of Dinosaur National Monument, the State wishes to ensure leasing of these parcels does not impact visual resources or cause light or sound disturbances within the national monument,” said Herbert at the time.

Following opposition from Herbert and other state and local officials, the BLM withdrew, deferring action on the parcels in question indefinitely.

Now, Niehaus, faced with the prospect of parcels in Sand Flats going out to bid for oil and gas leasing, wants Herbert to repeat that opposition on Moab’s behalf.

Beyond a recreation resource being at risk, Niehaus and other officials said that the Moab Valley’s sole source aquifer — the area’s only source for drinking water — is also at risk. The parcels sit partially on top of the aquifer, raising fears among local officials about the prospect of water quality deterioration if the parcels are, in the end, drilled for oil and gas.

The potential success of drilling in Sand Flats for oil and gas, however, is dubious. A well drilled in 1971 less than a mile from one of the parcels, the easternmost of the two, came up dry, according to state data. Such has been the case for each of the 20 other wells nearest the two parcels, all within roughly 6 miles of the proposed sites.

Beyond the lack of potential for drawing any oil or gas from the ground underneath Sand Flats, there are also considerable physical limitations. The BLM forbids surface occupancy of drilling operations inside Sand Flats; that means anyone looking to extract from one or both sites would have to drill horizontally, underground, from outside the recreation area to access the parcels.

Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann was also on the conference call Tuesday morning. When a reporter from The Hill asked participants on the call whether they were considering legal action in the matter, McGann said that it was one option on the table.

“Yes, we would consider that if need be, but hopefully they do what is right and remove those parcels,” McGann said.