Moab's dilemma: Can recreation coexist with energy?

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 4:25 p.m. MDT

Fidelity spokesman Tim Rasmussen said the company tried to locate wells with consideration for the viewshed and other resources. The company has to also adhere to spacing requirements set down by state and federal regulators.

"We understand that this is a pristine seasonal tourist area and we respect that," he said. "We were very, very particular in where we set the well locations."

Rather than the traditional "horse head" that nods up and down, Rasmussen said the company chose vertical, hydraulic pumps to be less obtrusive for visitors and those enjoying recreation.

But for Thomas and other oil critics, it doesn't matter.

"Every time I see one of these it pains my heart," said Deb Walter, a Park City transplant and retired school teacher.

Walter and her husband, Dick, are avid equestrians who trek the vast open spaces across BLM land in endurance rides that span 25 or 50 or even more miles across the Big Flat area.

A new pipeline being in put in by Fidelity crosses that same land, and this evidence of modern-day man is not what they want to see.

"Part of the beauty of this land is to be able to look and not see anything," said Dick Walter.

Thomas gestures to a hill in the distance.

"Wouldn't you rather see a group of horseback riders crest the top or would you rather see a water truck?"

The pipeline is being built to capture the natural gas that is being flared from the wells in Big Flat. One well spits flame so high it has earned the nickname "Dragon Breath."

Last year, an estimated 456 million cubic feet of natural gas was lost due to flaring in Big Flat, enough to supply 236,000 homes.

The state stepped in and said that the natural gas, once it reached that volume, had to be captured, said Dustin Doucet, a petroleum engineer with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

"Waste of that resource is a big issue, obviously, as is the impact to air quality," he said.

Potash prospecting

Beyond oil, environmental critics see the potash extraction industry as another use of the land that is incompatible with the recreation value of the area.

Outside of Moab, just north of the Colorado River, Intrepid has been mining potash for more than 50 years. Its azure ponds can be seen from the vantage of Dead Horse State Park, its role entrenched in the view shed for decades.

More recently, when potash prices spiked from $200 a ton to $900 a ton, the BLM was hit with a flurry of potash prospecting permits — going from an annual submission of just 10 to a couple hundred for the 420,000 acres available for potash exploration.

Until the Moab master leasing plan is complete, the BLM has put the brakes on any new potash mines. It has, however, allowed a company to put in four exploratory drilling holes.

Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson, a former geologist with the BLM and one-time potash consultant, said he believes Grand County's 2.4 million acres can accommodate an 1,100-acre footprint for another potash mine should one happen.

He also defends the philosophical position that it is possible for Grand County to have both recreation and a vibrant extraction industry without cost to either.

"We are a national and internationally recognized area," he said. "We are not going to do anything to destroy that."

Industry critics have protested in front of BLM offices and criticized elected leaders at Grand County Council meetings in recent months.

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