In 1984, developers said they had discovered billions of dollars worth of carbon dioxide reserves lay beneath the ground in and near the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Study Area near Escalante.
Environmentalists scoffed that the reserves were worthless.Because of the claims of vast riches, large chunks of the area were kept out of the Utah Forest Service Wilderness Act. But until now there was no way to settle the debate - just two conflicting opinions.
The Bureau of Land Management held an auction Tuesday for the right to develop carbon dioxide deposits in two tracts involved in the controversy, and while developers didn't bid millions, they did submit high bids of $43,386 for the two, showing the carbon deposits are valuable, at least in the view of some industry experts.
Promoters say carbon dioxide could be valuable in rejuvenating aging oil wells. Pumped into the wells under pressure, it could help push out more oil.
Some plans call for a pipeline to be constructed to carry the carbon dioxide from Garfield County to West Coast oil fields.
Lawson LeGate of the Sierra Club's public land office in Salt Lake City was not impressed with the bids. "My best bet is still that there is not a viable resource there, based on the information we've seen," he said. "But you never can tell. It's a strange nether world that investors live in."
He said he is aware of many projects that get a great deal of investment and "never turn a dime of profit," and he worried that Box-Death Hollow may wind up with a permanently damaged wilderness resource while no value is developed.
The two tracts were among a score of parcels in the Escalante Known Geologic Structure that were offered for bid by the BLM.
If the carbon dioxide is not developed within 10 years, said BLM spokeswoman Elaine Larsen, "the leases are closed permanently. There will not be another opportunity to bid on these."
She said the 19 parcels (36,543 acres altogether) that attracted development interest had high bids totaling $198,518. Only the two, Tracts 15 and 18, were offered for carbon dioxide reserves. The others were standard oil and gas leases.
The auction, lasting only about a quarter of an hour, was held despite the filing of objections by three environmental groups.
In mid-February, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club filed a challenge with the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals, attempting to reverse a Bureau of Land Management decision to issue carbon dioxide leases in the area. They claimed the federal government did not live up to an agreement to control oil and gas development near the Escalante River canyons.
The three groups asked the Interior Department to halt the sale while its legality was reviewed by the department's Board of Land Appeals.
However, the department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Michael A. Poling, reviewed the appeal and refused to suspend the sale.
"I have found that there is nothing in your statement of reasons to indicate that imminent harm will occur if the sale is held and the parcels processed accordingly," he wrote to the environmentalists.
If the board rules in favor of the environmentalists, he said, the BLM will refund money paid for any leases affected.
With energy prices as low as they are, said Mike Medberry of the Wilderness Society, "we find it hard to believe that people will go after such an essentially worthless commodity as carbon dioxide."
Bids came to $43,386
Parcel No. 15, just north of the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, amounting to 1,458 acres, received a high bid of $11 an acre from Lockard & Associates Inc., Denver. The total bid was $18,300.
Parcel No. 18, at Antone Bench, 794 acres, tallied a high bid of $30 an acre from Vern Jones of salt Lake City. Altogether, Jones bid $25,068 for the right to develop the carbon dioxide in this parcel.