On a 5-2 vote, the Grand County Council approved a letter to be submitted as part of public comment regarding the September oil and gas lease sale that the Bureau of Land Management has scheduled for 80,000 acres of public lands, most of which are within the county, including some parcels directly north of Canyonlands National Park.
The oppositional letter asserts that the lease sale “threatens the core of our tourism economy by locking in long-term oil and gas leases on and around popular recreation areas that are vital to our local economy.”
Voting against the letter were council members Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells. Wells said it would be nice for the county to get to weigh in more specifically on the matter, nodding to his sympathy for criticisms of the proposed lease sales. Ultimately, though, he decided to vote against the letter.
“This is one of those letters that we’re trying to get the governor on our side, and I would much more prefer us to be able to be more specific about where natural resource development conflicts [with outdoor recreation] and where it doesn’t,” Wells said, referring to what he considers a false dichotomy between outdoor recreation and oil and gas development.
The county council missed a deadline earlier this year to file with the Bureau of Land Management to be a cooperating agency in the lease sale process. As such, the council was left to file comment through the same channel as the rest of the public: During the public comment period on the lease sales. The council has since filed to become a cooperating agency on future lease sales.
“Had our request to participate in the analysis of these leases been granted, we would have stressed that this sale is likely to produce industrial impacts to many of our most valued recreation sites — such as increased noise, air and light pollution and safety concerns from increased truck traffic, particularly along Highway 313 that provides access to dozens of high-value BLM recreation areas,” the letter reads.
Council Member Evan Clapper, the key advocate for the letter, responded to Wells’ critique of the letter as “one-sided” by framing it as a counterpoint to the Bureau’s environmental assessment regarding the lease sales, which he said was also blind to the opposing view.
“The letter came off one-sided because the report from [the Bureau] was one-sided, and so this letter is representing some of that other side and some of that local, economic voice that wasn’t represented in their report,” Clapper said.
Council members generally said that they were unopposed to oil and gas extraction in Grand County. Council Chair Mary McGann said “I think it would be great” if there were more oil and gas extraction happening, as it would produce public funds for the county that it could then put toward the care center and others, and others reflected the sentiment.
“But,” McGann said, “this process that has happened I am concerned about because, right now, the royalties are so low. It’s like: You don’t sell your property when the property’s value is down, and it’s way down now, and the price of oil is way down.”
The concern over how much benefit the county would reap from the lease sale was a key sticking point outlined in the letter, as well.
“This leasing proposal — and the many existing leases — are unlikely to produce significant revenue or jobs for Grand County,” the letter reads. “Since April 30, [the Bureau] has approved 80 applications for ‘royalty relief’ in the State of Utah, which approvals reduce the royalty rate on these leases to as low as 2.5%. Seventy-three percent of these royalty waivers are for leases in the Moab Field Office, and 60% are for leases in Grand County, which means that Grand County will receive very little revenue from existing leases.”
Among the other concerns with the September gas lease sale in particular was its broad scope. Clapper and Curtis seemed to agree Tuesday that there was an economic interest by oil and gas speculators in buying up land leases while oil prices are low with the expectation that prices will eventually rebound. Where they disagreed was over the effects that could have for the county.
“The last time this volume of leases was auctioned in our community, the action produced multiple lawsuits, the leases were canceled, and the controversy led to leasing reforms (since discontinued in the last few years) that required better planning and balanced multiple uses of our public lands,” the letter said. The letter went on to say that a rebound in oil prices after a large sale of leases threatened to create “significant industrial impacts and safety concerns among some of Grand County’s most popular tourist destinations.”
Clapper advocated a more “surgical” approach to assessing and selling leases in the area, hence his desire to have Grand County become a cooperating partner with the BLM in oil and gas sales.