News & Politics

Trump Administration Is Now Auctioning Off Public Land in Utah for Oil and Gas

The land is located near protected national monuments.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.

The Trump administration has aggressively pushed for fossil fuels. Even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has previously insisted "this is not about energy," Interior Department documents made public by the New York Times earlier this month showed that gaining access to the oil, gas and uranium deposits in Bears Ears and coal reserves in Grand Staircase-Escalante were key reasons behind the drastic cuts to the two Utah monuments.

Conservation groups say the leases are contrary to federal laws and regulations, as oil and gas development will lead to the destruction of culturally and environmentally rich areas. Researchers recently discovered what may be one of the world's richest caches of Triassic period fossils at an extensive site within Bears Ears' original boundaries.

"We won't sit idly by while President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke auction off America's cultural and public lands heritage to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, legal director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). "This lease sale flies in the face of historic preservation and environmental laws that Congress put in place to make sure that BLM thinks before it acts; not 'lease first, and think later.'"

"BLM's short-sighted decision threatens Utah's red rock wilderness as well as significant cultural and archaeological resources," added Landon Newell, staff attorney with SUWA. "BLM's 'lease everything, lease everywhere' approach to oil and gas development needlessly threatens iconic red rock landscapes and irreplaceable cultural history in the ill-conceived push for 'energy dominance.'"

In addition to Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments, BLM also plans to offer leases in other culturally and ecologically significant public lands throughout southeastern Utah, as conservation groups outlined:

  • Several tracts in a culturally rich part of southeastern Utah known as Alkali Ridge. BLM briefly considered leasing in this area in 2015, but acknowledged that it lacked sufficient information about the cultural resources in the area and backed away from the proposal. The agency is putting these cultural sites at risk without collecting and reviewing that information;
  • Several tracts along segments of the Green River and San Juan River popular with families, recreational business and tourists for river running, as well as home to several endangered fish species; and
  • Several tracts in proposed wilderness areas including in Goldbar Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon near Moab, Utah, and in Cross Canyon, immediately adjacent to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Nada Culver, senior director of The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center pointed out, "Secretary Zinke and the BLM have acknowledged that some places should not be put at risk from oil and gas drilling, as we saw in his recent reprieves for lands around Chaco Canyon and the town of Livingston, Montana.

"The extraordinary cultural resources and wilderness values of these Utah lands deserve the same protection," Culver noted.

Reuters reported that local officials are eager to extract resources from the areas in order to provide economic benefits in some of Utah's poorest areas.

"Oil and gas operations are an important contributor to a diversified county economy and the county supports leasing as a necessary step toward realizing economic benefits," county planner Nick Sanberg said in comments to the BLM.

However, as Reuters detailed, "recent lease sales have yielded relatively low bids, a reflection of soft demand for federal property as the oil and gas industry taps vast reserves on private lands."

Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.