MOAB — The wells of the Big Flat oil field outside Moab flared enough natural gas last year to supply 236,000 homes — more than 450 million cubic feet.
A new $70 million 24-mile-long pipeline will capture that natural gas, preventing the waste of a natural resource and the harmful pollutants caused by its release into the air.
The 12-inch pipeline crosses Bureau of Land Management property outside Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park, with the majority of the line above ground exposed.
Critics say the pipeline, scheduled to be fully installed by June, is unsafe and its proximity to outdoor recreation activities invites disaster.
"It is an unregulated gathering line in an area where there are lots of people vacationing and recreating," said Deb Walter, a Moab resident who is also active in the Sierra Club. "There is about 500,000 people who use that area a year. There is always Jeepers out there, motorcycle riders out there, equestrians, and the pipeline is very dangerous."
Not so says Tim Rasmussen, spokesman for Fidelity Exploratiion & Production Co., which is putting in the pipeline. He said above-ground natural gas gathering lines are not uncommon, are safe, and several already exist in the Moab area.
It makes the pipeline, however, a literal "line in the sand" for some seeking to protect the land and its recreational opportunities, and those seeking to tap a natural resource, and the economic boost it would give those living and working in the area.
Walter is a former school teacher from Park City who gardens, keeps bees and likes to ride Sally, her mustang, out in the red dust of the sagebrush strewn land north of Canyonlands National Park.
It is the same area where the Dead Horse Lateral Pipeline is going in.
"Our biggest concern is that it is a safety issue," she said. "It is in a very inappropriate area."
Wagner and others have lobbed repeated complaints at the Bureau of Land Management for granting the right of way for Fidelity to put in the gathering line.
Lack of monitoring to ensure safe installation.
Above ground exposure near campgrounds and recreation routes.
Excessive tension due to lack of support as the line crosses washes or other low spots.
Residents riled up over the pipeline formed the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety, taking photos of the construction process and documenting their concerns to the federal agency.
The BLM, which granted the right of way but is not the regulatory authority for pipeline safety, forwarded the information to Utah's pipeline safety arm within the Department of Commerce and to the federal Pipeline safety administration.
In an April 4 letter, the BLM asked for a review of the residents' concerns and an expedited response since the pipeline is nearing an end to construction. The coalition said the pipeline should be treated as a transmission line — not a gathering line — which would require more stringent standards.
Bill Rau, a member of the coalition, said the BLM committed that the pipeline be built to the standards of a transmission line, but he said he does not see that happening.
"I think there are design and construction problems that are creating public safety issues," he said. "The design was calling it a gathering line, when in fact it should be a transmission line."
Critics say the classification of the line is important because of the safety concerns.
"There's been 8,000 pipeline ruptures in the last 30 years, just in the United States," said Marc Thomas, membership chair with local section of the Sierra Club. "How can they say this is safe?"
In a white paper on the pipeline, Fidelity says the line is low pressure, low volume and therefore not subject to federal regulation by the pipeline safety administration. It has been buried or bored into the ground in areas of high traffic and is being built by a company that has safely constructed and operated more than 4,000 miles of pipelines in four states, the paper states.
Rasmussen, the Fidelity spokesman, offered a direct defense of the project:
"We would not build an unsafe pipeline. We have been in the energy pipeline business since the 1930s and that is not a wise business model to be building an unsafe pipeline," Rasmussen said.
"That never makes sense. Not only is it not in the best interest of the public, but it is not in a good business decision either. You want pipelines with integrity that will move volumes because that is the revenue stream."
Fidelity is also proposing to build a 10.5 mile network of additional connector lines to the Dead Horse Lateral line, a process being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management, which will then seek public comment on the plan.
For Rau and Thomas, it has become too much. The pipeline — regardless of it capturing natural gas that was flared — is an encroachment of the oil industry on the land they love, land they say will be forever changed.
"My preference is that the pipeline would not have been built in the first place," Rau said.
He added that if the natural gas flares could continue, it might draw more attention to the oil extraction taking place next to the parks.
"Frankly, yes, I would prefer that they would flare," he said. "It would be much more conspicuous and would cause more people to question what is going on in this area."
Thomas said the entire infrastructure that Fidelity is putting in to support its wells represents a sea change for the area.
"Many people in the environment community think it is a good thing that the natural gas is captured. But the pipeline is just the beginning," Thomas said. "It is the harbinger of things to come. It is a very visible display of what the future holds."
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