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Political tension a constant companion to Utah's oil and gas fields

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 9:41 p.m. MST

Sierra Club's Tim Wagner works in his office in Salt Lake City Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Second in a two-part series

SALT LAKE CITY — The political landscape of oil and gas development in Utah is rife with rhetoric and teeming with tension, with the foes on either side destined to seldom, if ever, agree.

Tapping Utah's rich oil and gas resources either occurs at a woefully slow and ineffectual pace that is driving away industry, or it happens in a recklessly pell-mell fashion that sacrifices the environment.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, his energy adviser Cody Stewart and a bevy of political conservatives believe control of those resources that sit on federal lands could help fund the state's struggling education system and an entire slate of other pressing needs.

They need only look to North Dakota — thriving with the nation's No. 1 economy because of the Bakken oil boom — to argue that federal land management policies are stifling Utah's "resource" potential.

Two years ago, Herbert and the Utah Legislature passed a law to try to get control of those lands. The Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demands the federal government cede title to certain lands by Dec. 31, 2014, is a political movement that is also taking hold in other Western states that agree the federal process is painfully inefficient.

"We have 11 projects proposed in Utah that are in the environmental analysis stage with the Bureau of Land Management," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of governmental affairs and public relations, which represents independent oil and gas producers in the West.

"If we give government the benefit of the doubt, it should take about three years to get through the environmental analysis stage. We have projects over that three-year mark."

Sgamma said that as a result, industry is directing its attention to state-owned or private lands or moving out of Utah altogether.

"If you can't move forward in Utah on federal lands, you are going to put your resources in North Dakota where there are no federal lands."

For Tim Wagner, who runs the Our Wild America Campaign for the Sierra Club environmental group in Utah, that's just fine.

"The bottom line is whether it is public or private dollars, any dollar spent on any kind of fossil fuel development is a dollar that is not invested in a clean energy future," he said. "Utah is making a huge mistake in driving the state toward a policy that continues its addiction to fossil fuels."

Wagner said the public lands campaign of the Sierra Club is aimed at keeping "dirty energy" in the ground.

"It is a huge mistake for Utah and the country in terms of where it should be going," he said. "At some point it is going to run out."

The Sierra Club is among multiple groups lined up to oppose development of Utah's oil sands and its oil shale resources. The world's largest deposits of oil sands are found in eastern Utah, and the Utah Geological Survey estimates the state sits on 77 billion barrels of recoverable oil from its portion of the Green River Formation.

Those unconventional resources could deliver Utah its own North Dakota-style boom — but most of those resources sit on federal or state-owned lands, which give rise to legal challenges that tie up extraction for years if not extinguish it altogether.

"The delays are harmful but effective," Stewart said. "It dries up capital and it dries up interest."

The Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, released a report last year noting that federal land management policies cost the West billions of dollars in lost revenue and destroyed the prospect for more than 83,000 jobs.

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