Switchback- Should Drilling be Expanded in the San Rafael Swell?

Recently, the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to auction leases for 82 parcels for potential drill sites in the San Rafael Swell. The auction, scheduled for mid-November will offer leases covering approximately 79,000 acres, with the parcels between or adjacent to, existing drill sites in the regions northern perimeter. While many plugged and existing wells already exist in the proposed area, there is vocal opposition to expanding any drilling in San Rafael Swell, of which portions of 2,000-square-mile stretch of central Utah have been previously proposed for national monument designation. The debate is below, to voice your opinion, go to www.utahadvjournal.com

Protect this National Treasure


By Terri Martin

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

 Should we open the San Rafael Swell for oil and gas drilling? If that question made you choke, then you are probably one of the zillions of people who know and love this most spectacular landscape.

What? Drill the Swell?  You’ve got to be kidding.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) appears to be dead serious.  The agency is poised to sell oil and gas leases covering roughly 80,000 acres of wilderness-caliber lands in the Swell on November 19.

Picture drill rigs, sprawling pipelines, road scars, gas flares, air pollution and the thump thump thumping of pumpers on the flanks of the San Rafael Swell area.

Do I need to list the reasons why this is one bad idea?


The San Rafael Swell is a scenic and geologic wonder of the world, a sandstone spectacle full of majestic mesas, jagged cliff faces, narrow slot canyons, twisting spires and hoodoos.  The Swell has been proposed for protection as a national park, national monument, national conservation area and wilderness.  The State of Utah advertises the Swell as one of “Utah’s best destinations.”

The BLM itself has determined that these lands proposed for leasing are wilderness caliber (i.e. roadless and natural), including the Eagle Canyon, Lost Spring Wash, and Price River areas.

And the San Rafael Swell is an utterly premier place to hike, canyoneer, raft, bike, run, jeep, horseback ride, stargaze or simply stare awestruck into the distance while your soul recalibrates.

Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, also points out that “the Swell is integral to the future of one of Utah’s largest and most sustainable economic sectors – the outdoor industry,” a sector which currently generates an estimated $12 billion and employs more than 122,000 people, roughly 9.5 percent of all employment in Utah.

So why is BLM proposing to lease lands in this treasured gem?

Because we need to?  Nope.  Over 3 million acres of BLM lands are already under lease in Utah but have not been developed.  Energy companies already have plenty of places where they can drill.

Because the Swell is a known hot spot for oil and gas?  Nope.  Tom Chidsey, Utah Geological Survey petroleum geologist, says that only a few lease parcels overlap proven deposits of oil and gas and that companies will “face high risks and water problems and low probability of finding gas.”

The BLM tells us not to worry, the proposed leases are on the edge of the Swell, not in the heart of it.  BLM says some of the parcels are near existing gas leases, some not far from high-producing gas wells.

This is obfuscating mumbo jumbo.

What BLM fails to say is that:

  • Drill rigs could flank the Swell on three sides, with the sights and sounds of drilling intruding deeper into the Swell for miles;
  • Nearly all of the contested lease parcels are nowhere near existing wells;
  • 80,000 acres of now-undeveloped roadless lands – areas determined by the BLM itself to be wilderness caliber (and proposed for wilderness designation in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act) – will be thrown open to drilling.

The reason for this fiasco, and the underlying problem, is that BLM is still following the “lease first, think later; drill, baby, drill!” mentality of the Bush era, genuflecting unnecessarily to marching orders shoved through in the final days of that administration.  As the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, the BLM’s Bush-era directives “are tilted toward oil and gas drilling, all-terrain vehicle use and mining and away from preservation of Utah’s special places.”

Anyone who loves the Swell needs to demand that the Obama administration remind the BLM that national treasures, such as the San Rafael, should not be sacrificed to appease the oil and gas industry.  It’s time for BLM to acknowledge that some places should not be drilled, and the San Rafael is one of them.

Lost Spring in San Rafael area

Balance Protects the Land

By Kathleen Sgamma

Vice President of Government & Public Affairs

Western Energy Alliance


There is a false choice offered to Americans regarding our public lands. We must resist that false choice and instead recognize that we can do both – develop our land responsibly while protecting it for future generations. We can ensure thriving local communities have jobs and economic growth while enjoying the landscapes that make them desirable places to live, work and visit.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) continues to tell us that we must choose between abundant, affordable energy and protection of the land. To SUWA, the land must remain completely untouched and unproductive.

Theirs is a vision of scarcity and austerity; economic opportunity should be limited to just those that support human-powered recreation. The land is only worthwhile if it is empty of human activity, except for their preferred uses.

Certainly there are many places that should be preserved in a wild state, untrammeled by man. That is why the United States currently protects about 110 million acres of wilderness, 85 million acres of national parks, 58 million acres of roadless forests, 12.7 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), and 26 million acres in the National Landscape Conservation System. Federal land management agencies also designate special recreation management areas, areas of critical environmental concern, and others to further protect lands and natural resource values such as wildlife, cultural artifacts, and scenic vistas. States also manage parks to offer recreation opportunities, provide open spaces, and safeguard natural resources.

But the land is also a source of wealth for the country. It supplies food, timber, minerals, and energy – our basic sustenance and components of modern life. When we remove lands from productive uses, we remove access to resources that sustain life, livelihoods, and our economy. Therefore, we must be extremely careful when we decide to do so.

That is why the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spent eight years analyzing the lands in the Price, Utah planning area, including the San Rafael Swell. BLM considered public input from various competing interests, including proposals from SUWA to protect another million acres as wilderness. As part of the balance, BLM imposed wilderness restrictions on 97,100 acres.  If SUWA got 100% of what it wanted, 75% of Emery County would be off limits to other economic uses and job creation.

As part of its balancing act, BLM protected the San Rafael Swell while leaving surrounding areas open for energy development, but imposed further restrictions and protections. The lands BLM is offering for lease in the upcoming sale are all outside the San Rafael Swell, and adjacent to existing leases. The question posed as the premise for this article – Should Drilling be Expanded in the San Rafael Swell?  – isn’t even on the table.

Oil and natural gas has a small and temporary impact on the land. Current practices and new technologies ensure the environmental impact of oil and natural gas development is as minimal as possible, and modern reclamation techniques return the land to its original state. Well pad size has been reduced significantly, and ten, twenty and even thirty wells can be drilled from just one small pad. After a well is drilled and completed, interim reclamation further reduces the pad size. Remote sensors, control equipment, and liquids gathering lines reduce the number of trips required to service wells.

Once a well is finished producing after about thirty years, the land is reclaimed to such a pristine state that areas with prior and even active wells are regularly proposed for wilderness designation by SUWA, contradicting its main premise. SUWA will tell you that we must lock away the land to development, or else the land will be ruined forever. Yet it then turns around and says that the land is pristine enough for wilderness designation. That proves we can do both – develop energy while protecting the land. Rather than deliberative management that balances local needs for both economic opportunity and land conservation, SUWA proposes blanket wilderness designation of millions of acres in Utah.

I’m proud to be in the oil and natural gas industry. We live, work and play in rural areas in Utah and across the West, and we treasure the outdoors. We work hard to provide energy that sustains our economy and way of life, while protecting the air, water, wildlife and land where we operate. We offer Americans an alternative to false choices, and enduring opportunities to thrive and prosper. That is why Western Energy Alliance supports the thoughtful, deliberative negotiations on land exchange in Utah to ensure wilderness designation is balanced with productive uses. The state, congressional delegation, local communities, industry, and environmental groups are working together on land use that benefits all while rejecting the false choice offered by SUWA.


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