My view: Don't trade away public lands to become the next North Dakota

By David Garbett

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this March 8, 2011, photo is the The Port of North Dakota's transloading facility in northeast Minot, N.D. Trains have quickly become a huge part in hauling crude from North Dakota's oil patch with producers shipping barrels to more profitable markets not served by pipelines.

Dave Caldwell, Minot Daily News, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

No offense to North Dakota, but Utah would be ill advised to trade away its spectacular public lands to become North Dakota II. According to a recent Deseret News editorial, "North Dakota's natural gas production and aggressive energy policy have created a sustained boom." ("Federal land use policy preventing Utah energy independence," Aug. 29).

Unfortunately, the editorial appears to fall into a group that views public lands as a source of shame rather than pride — like a teenager embarrassed by his family. Apparently, if only we were North Dakota (if only my embarrassing family were like my neighbors'), then everything would be cool. Proponents of this view would trade our birthright for a mess of pottage.

When it comes to natural gas, Utah already has North Dakota beat. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we produced more than five times as much natural gas as North Dakota in 2010. It is more likely that the Deseret News intended to highlight crude oil production, the cause of North Dakota's current resource boom. North Dakota produced nearly six times as much crude oil as Utah in 2011.

This crude oil boom appears to be the result of drilling advances, favorable market prices and the oil-rich Bakken formation. While Utah has at its disposal the same drilling advances and market prices, it does not have the Bakken formation. Our difference in production is likely more about geology than anything; wishful thinking and rants aimed at the federal government will not change this. No matter how well intended, lengthy or glossy, an energy policy cannot change our geology.

Failing on this front, the editorial trots out the tired and worn battle cry to remember the 77 leases (a reference to 77 oil and gas leases that were not offered by the federal government on sensitive lands next to places like Arches and Canyonlands national park). This is like blaming the housing crisis on one cities denial of a few housing permits. Except, in this case there is no crisis.

The center of energy development in Utah, the place that has supposedly been crippled by public lands policies, Uintah County, had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in July this year. That does not sound like a region suffering from oppressive government policy. There is a surplus of public lands available for energy development in Utah. The Bureau of Land Management has issued nearly 5 million acres-worth of leases in Utah but production is only taking place on roughly one million acres of those leases.

In other words, drillers have more lands than they can use. Public lands in Utah and their management do not prohibit energy development. The essence of the editorial's complaint really seems to be that there are any public lands off limits to oil and gas development.

However, there is nothing wrong with protecting some of our treasures. The residents of Bismark, N.D., do not have the Wasatch Mountains an easy 30 minute drive from their home; Utahns on the Wasatch Front do. Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef national parks are all located in Utah. Desolation Canyon was created by Utah's Green River, not North Dakota's Red River. The San Rafael Swell sits in the center of Utah, not North Dakota.

I think you get the picture: Utah's magnificent public lands differ from North Dakota's private lands vastly in topography, character and in terms of the wildlife and vegetation they support. Utah is lucky to have such an embarrassment of natural riches; we should protect some of it.

David Garbett is a staff attorney at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

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