The BLM is gearing up for its largest oil and gas lease sale in the U.S.'s history. On May 16th parcels of our public lands will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. While the U.S. is trying to repress its “addiction” to foreign oil, gas and oil wells and drills are dotting Utah’s wilderness areas. What are the implications for Utah’s natural landscape? The Utah NOW team traveled east, to Vernal, Utah, to capture the portrait of a boom town and to investigate one of eight BLM pilot offices in the U.S.
Learn more about the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS). The organization is trying to efficiently explore, develop, and produce oil and gas using environmentally-sound methods on Fee, State, Federal, and Indian lands.
Learn more about the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA tries to build strong and lasting public support for wilderness preservation by focusing its attention on grassroots activists and public outreach campaigns.
The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining regulates exploration for and development of Utah's oil, gas, coal and other mineral resources.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) represents America’s oil and natural gas industry.
The Natural Resources Defense Council protects the planet's wildlife and wild places to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things.
[Doug Fabrizio, Host]
They say there’s always a cycle to any boom - bust being on the other end. But for now things are good in Eastern Utah’s Uintah Basin. Energy explorers are flocking to the region – armed with new technologies to bring to the surface valuable resources once believed trapped in the ground. Responding to a decree from the Bush administration to encourage exploration – the Bureau of Land Management is holding its largest ever oil and gas lease sale next week…just how long could Utah’s energy boom last – what are the benefits to Utah’s economy – and what are the costs to Utah’s land….
Hello, and welcome to Utah NOW. I’m Doug Fabrizio.
Most good politicians understand that if you really want to get a voter’s attention – you go to their pocketbook. Its why - during an election year - you’re seeing candidates trying to get some traction out of the rising prices at the gas pump. Most know they have very little control over the cost of a gallon of regular - so they talk about the stuff on the edges of the issue – about conservation, alternative fuels, efficiency standards… but there’s a reality most of us understand. When it comes to America’s energy use – it’s all about supply - where are we going to get some more. That question is creating something of an energy boom in the West and it’s raising difficult questions – in the pursuit of energy independence – what are the compromises Americans will be willing to make and how do you weigh the benefits against the costs. You want to see the face of the west’s energy boom – you’ll have to go East – to the Uintah Basin…
For most of its existence the high desert city of Vernal has survived off the things buried beneath the surface. For decades tourists have been drawn to the city for the abundance of dinosaur fossils in the area. But the same geology that preserves ancient bones also produces an array of hydrocarbons – and that translates to energy – oil and natural gas. Right now the region is booming – energy explorers are packing the Uintah Basin – in Vernal the population is expected to double in less than a decade. But Vernal doesn’t control its own destiny – much of that is in the hands of the federal government…
[Bill Johnson, Director of Economic Development, Uintah County]:
The whole state of Utah…we’re very dependent on public lands. Uintah County has only 15 percent of the entire mass of the county private. So 85 percent is either controlled by BLM or by the forest service, by the state or by the tribe. All of those are our partners as far as economic development goes. We guestimate it’s about anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of our economy is dependent on the energy sector, and that’s direct jobs or indirect jobs.
Experts say there are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the region – and that’s not to mention the oil resources. With trouble brewing in the Middle East and energy costs soaring – the Vernal BLM office is feeling the pressure. The numbers of lease requests by oil and gas companies are multiplying by the day and the Bush Administration wants the agency to fast track the process. Environmental groups, meantime, are worried what the boom will mean for sensitive eco-systems. Bill Stringer, knows he has to find some middle ground.
[Bill Stringer, Field Office Manager, Vernal BLM Field Office]:
BLM is a multiple use agency, meaning that we have to find a way to balance oil and gas with recreation, with wildlife. Oil and gas development is one of those things that people can look at and say “I don’t really like to see that on my public lands. I like to go and get away and not see those kind of things.” But as multiple use we have to find a way to do all of those.
But in light of the political atmosphere – the rules seem to be changing. Land parcels considered wilderness a decade ago – are now fair game for energy explorers. The vernal BLM Field Office is at the center of the activity… it’s been asked to test the limits of a pilot program designed to make the land leasing process easier for mining companies. But Bill Stringer bristles at the idea that the agency is greasing the skids for corporate America…
We do not cut corners. We still do the same amount of compliance work. With the pilot coming on what we are able to do is we are able to free up some of those resource personnel who need to be working on wildlife, who need to be working on recreation.
Balancing all of the interests in a public land dispute is much like the process of exploratory mining. A lot of analysis and science – but in the end no guarantee of a positive outcome. In the meantime – the residents of vernal are caught in the crossfire…
The BLM office here is just…I commend them for the job that they do because it’s a thankless job because they are caught in the middle, you know, from the far environmental side who want to protect everything and keep hands off all the public lands, no more drilling and stuff…all the way to the far right side where you’ve got the energy, the m-p companies saying you know, we’ve got a crisis with energy, we’ve got to be able to get in to drill. Trying to balance that, to make use of the multiple use platform and it’s very difficult.
We can’t meet everybody’s request, everybody’s need, everybody’s desire at the same time, but over a period of time we will. I do not believe that oil and gas is an irreparable scar upon the land. I think that as we look over time, those areas will be unnoticeable at some point in the future.
Joining us to help put the story in context – is the reporter Paul Foy – Paul covers energy development in the West for the Associated Press – Paul welcome…
[Paul Foy, Journalist, Associated Press]:
Thank you, it's good to be here.
As boom and bust cycles go for the Uintah basin, where does this boom rate in the scheme of things?
This is a boom I think is just taking off for about a year now. There's no question we're seeing very aggressive oil and gas drilling in Utah right now. About 5 million acres are under lease right now for oil and gas leasing, and pretty soon another half million acres will be put up for auction.
On Tuesday. So what's the kind of central conflict here in that particular lease sale? Is it mostly about the environment?
I can tell you as a reporter we're seeing the bureau of land management offer more oil and gas leases that back up to national parks and national monuments, and that's caused a conflict. These are parcels that are nominated by the industry, they're put out to auction by the BLM and they're only taken back under protest by other groups and that's the kind of conflict that we're seeing every quarter with an auction.
Let me ask you about the political dimensions of all this. I wonder how much of Utah's energy boom is being driven by market forces as opposed to the Bush administration or are they kind of interconnected, you can't separate the two?
I think it's definitely a combination of the two. There's no doubt with oil at $70 a barrel a lot of this is being driven by the market and by the industry, but I think there's little question that the
Bush administration is pushing oil and gas leasing more than we've seen in recent years. So it's a combination of the two.
Seems like the question of proximity is important. I'm thinking what may be different from the boom this time versus the boom, say, of the middle 80's, is that they are closer to more sensitive areas, this land that's in dispute.
Yeah, I think this time what's happening is that oil and gas drilling is pushing into more sensitive areas. As I said, closer to national parks, closer to national monuments, near the Green River, near the San Juan River. We're reaching out. The BLM is reaching out now to offer lands for oil and gas drilling that are closer to the sensitive environmental areas because all the easy oil has been used up already. The Uintah Basin has been an oil field for many years, but now we're seeing oil companies wanting to push out from there.
I’m wondering how technology is changing the dimensions of this story.
Technology has made it I think a little bit easier for the oil companies to get at some of the gas and oil. They can drill deeper, they can find it easier. But still, it's a constant struggle for them to keep up with production, and in fact as much as we're seeing new activity in oil and gas production in Utah, overall, the industry is in decline. We're not -- in fact, Utah oil production peaked in 1985, and we're not likely ever to see the levels that we did see in 1985.
So when we use words like "boom," I’m wondering how much money is being made. Is there a lot of money being made in this boom?
It depends who you're talking to and who is and isn't striking oil. There's been a major discovery ... Pumping oil as fast as it can right now from a system of wells. And there's no doubt that that
company is making a lot of money. The prices for oil and gas, though, are so high that as long as you can find this resource, you can certainly make money on it.
Let me ask you this, finally. Again, as we're talking about boom and bust cycles, the one in the mid-80's collapsed pretty quickly. Do you have any sense about the duration of this most recent boom, any sense at all?
My sense is that this is a boom that ... It's not going to ... It doesn't show any signs of declining again. And why? Because a couple reasons. Because the world, quite frankly, is desperately in need of more oil, and there's less oil to be had. We're running out of oil. It's that simple. Whether you look at the figures for Utah, the nation as a whole, or the world. We are either at peak or past peak. So I think in the future what it means is that there's just going to be less and less oil and. For that reason, I don't think the price will ever drop down again to $20 or $30 a barrel.
Okay. Paul, thanks very much.
The voices in this week’s Vox Populi – come not so coincidentally - from Vernal - the center of Utah’s energy boom...
It’s just phenomenal, there’s help wanted signs in every business because the oil and gas industry is just booming. And so everybody wants to work where the high dollar is of course.
Well, changes, they’ve been really good, this town went from being a pretty small town to, well you can see it now, it’s basically got traffic like Salt Lake City.
I don’t like it. It’s a little town that’s not a little town no more.
It’s a small town that was small to you, and as it grows and grows and grows you sort of feel squeezed.
We’ve never run into a problem where there’s not enough room for everybody yet.
When all the dust is settled, when literally all the dust goes down in Vernal and all the drilling’s over the people who make this Uintah Basin their home are the one who are going to find out exactly what resources may have been compromised.
This whole town is based on oil field. If the oil feel crashed tomorrow, this town would go down hill, everybody just about everybody that lives here works in the oil field one way or another.
Tough job, that’s what makes the town run’s the oil though, with out the oil it dies.
We need the energy so badly as a nation that the people respect the roads and respect our area, we would them to come, but we don’t want, we don’t want it ruined. And we have to have the boom and bust and right now we’re in the boom.
I say this, if we do not experience a bust in the Uintah Basin with in 10 years anybody in town can serve me up a steaming plate of smoking hot crow at the 7-11 Café and I’ll eat it, because I can’t believe we won’t have a bust we’re gonna to tap out the oil and gas and it’s gonna be gone.
In the end – this story will play out as competing forces maneuver for position. Joining us now is Stephen Bloch – he’s a staff attorney for the conservation group the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance – Stephen welcome. We should mention that SUWA is one of the environmental organizations that recently filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management – they’re challenging the leases on some of the parcels being made available for exploration.
Also with us – is Lowell Braxton. He’s the Utah representative for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (or IPAMS)… welcome…
Steve, I want to start with you. You've said that Utah really is the best place to get a sense of the implications of the American energy boom. What are the consequences, do you think, as you see them?
[Stephen Bloch, Staff Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance]:
Well, I think some of the consequences we're seeing on the ground are new leasing, new seismic testing new and more wells and that related infrastructure spreading into some of this state, some of this country's last and really best wild places. Places where you would never thought to have seen an oil well or a pipeline that that's ... It's spreading out now like a spider web.
That's the thing that's unique about the difference between the boom of the 80's and the boom now this time, is that the thing that's particularly unique about it again.
Again, I just think Utah is a microcosm for it. It's a state that has fantastic wilderness and other scenic resources, historic artifacts, outstanding wildlife, relatively marginal amounts of oil and gas. Certainly in context of oil and gas is in this, is in the country and then is in the world it's an extremely marginal here and yet we're seeing under this administration just such a concentrated aggressive push to sink as many wells to lease as much land as possible in our wildest places.
Lowell Braxton, I want to ask you, how important is the issue of energy independence in the context of this particular question?
[Lowell Braxton, Utah Representative, Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States]:
Well, I think if you look at forecasted demand for energy, we're going to be increasing the amount of oil that's needed between now and 2030 probably by 25 percent the need for natural gas is going to come up in the same order of magnitude, 20 percent to 30 percent, coal usage is going to come up in the range of 40 percent and these are all energy administration figures that I’m using. Interestingly enough, renewables are supposed to produce 60 percent more than they're currently doing right now, but if renewables go up by 60 they're still only going to produce about 6 percent of the total energy demand for the U.S. The next question we need to address is the fact that most of the drilling in Utah is natural gas oriented rather than petroleum oriented. I think we've gone from a petroleum economy, perhaps in the 80's we're weaning our way into a natural gas economy. As long as we're using hydrocarbons and we're not importing very much natural gas, we're importing about 14 percent of U.S. demand in natural gas and it's coming in from Canada. So everything else that's being produced is being produced domestically. If you look at it on a sector basis, the gulf coast production is declining, Southeast U.S. is declining, West Coast gas production is declining. The Rocky Mountains are the only area that has increased oil ... Excuse me, increased natural gas production. And so as we're requiring more gas to run electrical generation and peaking, things like that, it's increasingly important to ramp up our production abilities.
I wonder, what has been the influence, do you think, Steve Bloch of the Bush administration, in all of this? I think you have a sense that the actual focus of that agency has sort of been transformed in this administration.
Well, I don't think there's any question that almost from day one in this administration under the Bush-Norton administration, the focus has been almost exclusively on oil and gas extraction and development. In fact, in 2002, the Washington, D.C. office of the BLM came here to Utah and they issued a mandate and it was -- that oil and gas lease and development should be the BLM’s number one priority. And over the subsequent years we've seen that agency follow out that mandate. The things that we hear, the things that we read, hear from agency staff, read in internal agency memorandum confirm that almost every day that it's a push from Washington D.C. coupled with a push from the energy industry. I don't think it's any surprise that, of course, the vice president had some meetings almost straight out of the gate solely with members of the energy industry and that this administration's energy policy was shaped by industry.
I want to get you to respond because I’m wondering what you make of the suggestion that this administration is making things much easier for you and your industry.
I think if you look at prices and we go back to 1997 or '98 Utah crude was selling for about $10 a barrel, natural gas was about $1.25 or less per cubic feet. In about 1999 and before the election, all of that had turned around. Prices started to come up, drilling activity started to come up and I think it's true what Steve said that this administration is paying a lot of attention to the oil and gas business and it may be a business that they've understood in their previous lives. But I think if you look at the options that are available to the public for producing these products that are in high demand right now we don't have a lot of choice. If we start importing, and that would be on the oil side, not the natural gas side, it's going to have a horrendous effect on our balance of payments, our loss of jobs and other things like that. We don't have the ability to import natural gas right now. It would take a whole new level of technology to import natural gas if we're going to look at new types of electrical generation, we're looking at a new type of coal-fired power plant that will take years and years to get on board so we're stuck in the present right now.
To respond to that, what are the alternatives, then, you hear local's suggesting sort of this is the only option.
For one moment, let me ... It's interesting. We talk about energy independence, but I think you need to view the amount of oil and gas that's here in Utah and here in the United States in context. The state of Utah according to figures from the energy administration has about 1 percent of this country's supply of oil and natural gas. And in a world context, the United States has less than 3 percent of the reserves of oil and gas. So we're not talking a lot of resource. So when you talk about what's happening here on the ground in Utah, and how important it is to sink every well, to sell every lease, I think you really need to view it through this lens that we're not even the drop in the bucket. As far as the idea about what are alternatives, I mean, I keep hearing from industry, from the administration that we can't do this, we can't do that. I think there's been in particular this past year more of a call for things like a Manhattan Project for Conservation, for alternative energy, that this is actually the wave of the future, it's not to send those jobs overseas but let's keep them in the united states and figure out how to make alternative energy something that works.
How do you respond to that question of how much land there actually is that holds promise for your industry?
I'd like to respond to something else that he said just as an aside first. And I agree that if you look at the national demand, the amount of forecasted oil and gas in Utah is small, but if any of us were to live our lives and savor retirement, we pick up pennies, we pick up dollars and kind of earn our way into retirement in incremental manners and I think if we're going to do anything but import all of our energy needs we've got to use the sources that are available to us. I'd also agree with what Steve said in that we can't be on a hydrocarbon binge for another generation. I think we've got to get the steps in place that produce alternative types of energy. But right now, you're looking at a five or ten year lead time to get those things on board. Certainly conservation should be a big part of everybody's energy equation.
So as kind of a reality here, I’m wondering how you think about ... Whether or not you think there can be kind of a coexistence between industry and the interest of the environment and the land.
I think that's what we have found to be so problematic in this administration is really the lack of balance. In response to something that Lowell said, I mean SUWA conservation groups in Utah and across the west are not out there challenging every drill permit. That's just fallacy. There's over -- for example, here in Utah there have been over 5,000 of those permits approved under this administration. SUWA has challenged one-half of 1 percent of those. So we're not talking the conservationists are extending us road blocks every step of the way. What we're looking for is some balance that's going to protect and preserve the special places for Utahns, for all Americans, the places outside of national parks and in some instances, inside of national recreation area. As just an aside, there's a well that's been proposed in just the furtherest corner of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that's being vigorously pursued by the park service as far as their environmental analysis. So we're really talking, now, just the furtherest flung cornous of the state, some of the wildest and most remote sections of the state are in the cross hairs.
Lowell, let me give you the final word. It seems like you and Steve agree on one thing, a number of things, that people really need to start changing their life styles or this is going to be a constant question. Do you think that's true?
I do, yes.
Great. Perfect way to wrap it up. Lowell, thank you very much. Steven, thank you as well.
In our ‘Speak Out Utah’ segment this week – we switch gears a bit – commentator John Florez is worried about the future of another kind of resource..
It’s graduation time.
And I worry that parents today don’t realize that a high school diploma is no longer a ticket to the middle class like it was for many of us.
Globalization has changed our world, but our schools have not kept pace with change.
Yet, education administrators keep on telling us our schools are doing better.
But, better than what? Better than 30 years ago?
They tell us they need more money to study the achievement gap.
But as Thomas Freidman has said:
We should be worrying about the motivation gap,
Where Americans have gotten lazy and have a sense of entitlement.
And don’t expect the state legislators to retool our schools, they appear clueless about how the world has changed.
They seem to believe regulations and more accountability are the answer, and keep doing the same.
Bill gates once said “American high school education is obsolete … I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.’
In today’s global economy our students – in order to succeed –will have to be life-long learners.
To do that, we need schools where teachers are appreciated and eager to come to work so they can teach the most important thing --- the love of learning.
In today’s economy families are working harder to make ends meet and our schools need to respond to those changing needs.
So we must elect leaders who understand how the world has changed and who have the political will to renew our schools to keep pace with change.
If, not, I am afraid our next generation may be living in a Third-world kind of country.
We can’t let them down.
Finally tonight - time for a few comments… On our last program about Kanab’s natural family resolution – Darrel Magnum of Centerville sent this:
“I came away thinking that there just has to be a way to communicate that a community supports and encourages traditional families, and at the same time embraces and supports all members of the community and recognizes their contributions.”
Cathy McCrystal of Kanab says…
“With the mayor and city council out busy preaching, perhaps Kanab taxpayers should pay some preachers to fix the potholes.”
And we’re still hearing about our program on illegal immigration – from West Jordan – Paul Emett sent this…
“Of course an illegal immigrant doesn't have claim to the legal protections that [U.S.] citizens have. Perhaps the petition of illegals, in the absence of sophistication or legal training, is nothing more than an expression of wanting to be treated fairly and humanely.”
That’s Utah NOW for this evening. Thanks for joining us …. remember you can join the conversation with an e-mail… how are you weighing the questions of Utah’s energy boom? What are the compromises you’re willing to make in THE INTEREST of energy independence?
Our address is UtahNOW@kued.org
In the meantime - we’ll be back next Friday with another edition of Utah NOW… until then, I’m Doug Fabrizio….
No comments posted yet. You could be the first.. Start a conversation now!
(Your comment will need to be approved by the Utah NOW staff before your comment will appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)
First name: *
Last name: *
Email address: *
Your city: *
To prevent "e-mail spam", please copy the text you see in the graphic into the textbox below:
Please type what you see in the graphic above:
Previous show, 04.28.06
« The Governor's Monthly News Conference
Next show, 05.12.06
Aden's Amerika »