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New Oil and Gas Drilling Techniques Threaten Utah's Cultural and Environmental Riches

Advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has the petroleum industry taking another look at a lot of previously unpromising land.
 
 
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ANETH, Utah -- I first climbed the sacred butte at the edge of the Greater Aneth oil field in 1998. My husband, Doug, had been here before and knew where to find hand- and footholds in a break along the steep sides. He told me there were remains of about a dozen kivas on top, underground ceremonial structures built by Pueblo people. Usually entered through a hole in the roof, the interior accessed by ladder, these kivas had deteriorated over the centuries; all that was left, he said, were the hot tub-sized pits.

We clambered up and were greeted by a sight he had not expected: the kivas all were marked with stakes and flagging, a sign that contract archeologists had been through here, cataloging the site in advance of the oil and gas rigs. As the sun set, we removed everything we could, hauling the trash with us. Returning several times during the next ten years, we found it remained untouched, as though no one had been here since the original architects.

Nowhere else in the United States can one see how people lived on the land for thousands of years as in the sandstone desert wilderness of the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners region. In a few instances, these places are named and outfitted with tourist amenities. But for the most part, the ruins, pottery, shelters and rock art of early Americans simply lie out in the sun and wind. Geologists call the heart of this country the Paradox Basin, and believe there's oil and gas yet to be found here. More than 440 million barrels of oil have poured out of the Aneth field since its discovery at the south end of the Paradox in 1956. And the Lisbon field up north toward Moab has been quietly, steadily producing oil, about 55 million barrels since 1960. But advances in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has the petroleum industry taking another look at a lot of previously unpromising land, including this country here.

On the north end of the basin beyond Moab, Tom Chidsey of the Utah Geological Survey tells me, there's potential for new discoveries. Further south, he'd like to see the old fields worked over with new techniques, including the use of carbon dioxide sequestration to pressurize older wells into higher, more efficient production. And all over the region, he says, significant amounts of oil and gas could be lying trapped in shale -- the exact kind of situation that has the industry excited about producing natural gas from the Marcellus formation on the East Coast, and the Barnett shale in Texas.

"It's actually going on in southwestern Colorado," he says. "We're just trying to see if we can get that kind of success on the Utah side."

But from the lycra-clad mountain biking mecca of Moab to Navajo towns in the south, people aren't sure they want that kind of success in their backyards. Especially in the reservation communities of Aneth and Montezuma Creek, where boom and bust look an awful lot alike.

Clovis people were likely first on this continent, and occupied the grassy plateaus of the Four Corners region roughly 11,000 years ago. There's some evidence that the weather was becoming dryer, warmer then, and about that time huge game animals went extinct leaving merely big game. In archeological digs, Clovis blades give way to Folsom points, which are replaced with the implements of Eden, Cody and Agate Basin people, the whole lot of them big game hunters referred to commonly as Paleo-Indians. Their distinctive arrow and spear points are still scattered all over the place: a person with a feel for the landscape can pick out a bench above the confluence of two creeks, and find evidence of a whole range of cultures.

 
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