Does Sand Flats even have any oil?

In the 1970s, one company looked. They found nothing.

Areas in Grand County that are known or believed to be oil or gas fields are marked as grey blocks on this map. Grey dots indicate oil and gas wells, both active and abandoned. All wells in the county east of Moab and south of the confluence of the Colorado and Dolores rivers are dry. Map data courtesy of the State of Utah

In 1971, years before Moab would become a tourism hub known worldwide and only two years after the Slickrock Trail was opened, extraction was the name of the Grand County economy’s game. That year, in December, a company that would go on to become a major part of the Chevron Corporation drilled a 12,000-foot well in the Sand Flats Recreation Area in search of oil or gas.

Three months later, Union Oil Company of California plugged and abandoned the well, and it has since been marked “dry.” The company found no oil and no gas.

That well, Burkholder Unit 1-G-1, sits less than a mile from one of two parcels in the Sand Flats Recreation Area that the Bureau of Land Management recently proposed for oil and gas leasing, to much controversy. The BLM’s proposal comes after the two parcels were nominated for leasing by an as-yet unknown party, as part of a standardly anonymous nomination process.

In the 16-mile radius around that Sand Flats well, there are 41 other wells, some for storage or other miscellaneous purposes, most for extraction. Of the 37 extraction wells in that area, 36 yielded no oil or gas. All of them have been plugged and abandoned.

The one well in the area that, according to state data, did produce oil yielded 16 barrels. Today, that amount of oil would sell for approximately $800 — chump change compared to the cost of drilling and operating an oil drilling operation. For comparison, some other wells in Grand County produce more than 100 barrels of oil each month, and one well can produce millions of barrels in its lifetime.

Ultimately, the potential for finding oil at the end of a well is not known until one is drilled. A world of investment has gone into oil and gas exploration for centuries, but looking through solid rock to find oil, gas, water or any specific material remains a technical beast and a huge financial burden.

A 2005 report from the BLM about the potential for mineral development in Grand County broadly indicated that there was a “high potential with a high level of certainty” for new oil and gas being found in Grand County at the time, informed partially by many wells already having been drilled and producing around the county.

Due to the speculative nature of oil and gas drilling, however, the report did not make any specific claim as to the availability of oil and gas in the Sand Flats area. While broad areas of oil and gas fields can be noted, little data exists on specific locations that have gone untapped.

Maps depicting the location and extent of oil and gas fields around the county show that the Cisco area and northeastern corner of the county have substantial oil and gas fields, and areas west of Moab and south of La Sal Junction also have a few, smaller fields. Indeed, high-yield oil and gas areas in the northern part of Grand County are largely developed and producing oil. West of Moab are gas fields that extractors have also developed.

As for the southeast corner of the county, including Moab and the area around the La Sal Mountains, despite sparse drilling and attempts to locate oil or gas, all have been abandoned. It is thus not certain whether drilling in and around Sand Flats would or would not yield oil, but many have tried, and all have come up dry. Most of the drilling and interest of extractors lies elsewhere in county.