Crude reality: North Dakota oil boom has Utah envying its surplus green

State officials see federal control as blocking source of revenue, education funding

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 5:20 p.m. MST

When it comes to ownership and control, the numbers do the talking. The BLM controls roughly 42 percent of the land mass within the borders of Utah. By comparison, between state and private ownership, Herbert is in charge of about 31 percent of the land mass.

In total, federal land ownership in North Dakota is just less than 4 percent, while Utah stands at closer to 70 percent.

"It's not lost on us in Utah that on private land, where it takes one to two months to get a permit to drill for natural gas, to get access to natural resources on public land it takes a year to 18 months — time is money," Herbert said. "We see the private sector leaving. We hear them say, 'We are going to Bakken in North Dakota or to Oklahoma or to Texas because we get a better return on our investment.' Even though we eventually get there, the investment of time takes too long."

In the meantime, the pace of extracting oil and natural gas in North Dakota shows no sign of waning.

In 2009, the state was exporting $216 million in crude oil. By 2012, the state was exporting well more than $1.1 billion worth of crude oil and the state is now supplying nearly 10 percent of the U.S. crude oil supply.

Constraint or blessing?

Both industry and Utah oil and gas regulators say Utah's huge chunk of public lands put it at a disadvantage to compete.

"Utah is not a top-tier attractive market because of the public lands constraints we face," said Jeff Hartley, an industry lobbyist.

It's been a "constraint" that has long chafed Utah's political leaders.

A century ago, then-Gov. William Spry protested the federal government's unwillingness to relinquish its control over lands in Utah. Subsequent governors — some of them Democrats — would echo the complaint.

It is a divisive issue.

On one hand, federal land ownership is the rallying cry for corrective action that would fix the problems of access and thus boost revenue, putting Utah's destiny where it belongs, in local hands.

On the flip side, critics of the movement assert that the vast Utah landscapes controlled by a D.C. landlord are the reason Utah enjoys a $6 billion outdoor recreation economy. Giving state or local government control of that acreage would leave it pillaged, plunging the state's most prized and pristine areas into an abyss of environmental abuses.

"I don't see any problems with fairness. I think it is a blessing that Utah has so many public lands," said attorney David Garbett with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an organization that works to preserve and protect wilderness areas. "What a wonderful thing that people can step outside their own backyard and be in the Wasatch, visit our wonderful canyons and go down to southern Utah without worrying about no trespassing signs. It belongs to all of us. "

But Herbert and others insist that the protectionist ownership of the federal government comes at the expense of "all of us" with its management practices that are often lethargic and incompetent at best and dictatorial and adversarial at worst.

In May, Herbert testified in Washington at a congressional natural resources subcommittee meeting about the issue, asserting that the federal land management apparatus is massive, bureaucratic and too rigid.

"Just as Henry Ford offered his first customers a choice of any color car they wanted as long as it was black, federal land management agencies today provide states flexibility in land management — as long as they do it the way Washington tells them," Herbert said. "It is becoming increasingly apparent that the current federal land management process is outdated — like a Model T."

Utah's gold mine

New technology unleashed the Bakken's potential, creating a billion-dollar state budget surplus for North Dakota. Its flush fiscal times has it third in the nation for per capita spending on higher education.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere