Moab, Utah seems to be coming full circle. Early prospectors discovered useful minerals – uranium, vanadium, potash and manganese – near the farming and ranching outpost, and in the 1950s, Moab became known as the “Uranium Capital of the World.” Thirty years later, the boom was over, the mines closed down, and homes stood empty.
Moab then reinvented its economy to exploit another natural resource – the stunning redrock scenery. The area became a major tourist destination with two national parks, a state park, and world-class mountain biking, jeeping, ATV riding, river rafting and rock climbing.
Now, the Moab area seems to be swinging back toward industrialization, with a stack of new proposals for wells, mines and pipelines -- even as it’s still mopping up the 16-million-ton uranium tailings pile left by the last boom. The Grand County council and some business leaders believe that energy development and recreation can coexist, but many locals fear that a wholesale return to extraction will drive away tourists and ruin the landscape. The Deseret News reports:
“Moab is a key player in an outdoor recreation economy that in Utah generates $856 million in state and local tax revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Well more than 70 percent of the jobs in Grand County — 2,440 as of 2012 — derive from tourism.
Beyond its role as a recreation mecca, the Moab area is home to the earthly riches of potash deposits, an active copper mine and the nation's largest producing oil well in the lower 48 states. The extraction industry supports just 2 percent of the jobs in Grand County, but they are good-paying jobs county officials predict will continue to grow as the economy diversifies.”
More energy development is anticipated in the area, which contains an estimated 145 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 32.5 million barrels of oil. Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. operates 17 wells near Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park, reports the Deseret News, and plans at least a dozen more. The BLM expects at least 100 additional wells from other companies over the next 15 years.
Fidelity is also building a controversial 24-mile-long pipeline to capture natural gas being flared from its wells. Last month, Moab citizens held a protest in front of the BLM office to encourage the agency to improve the safety of the Fidelity pipeline, which runs near campgrounds at Canyonlands and Dead Horse. They’ve also been worried about the company’s water consumption: Although Fidelity’s wells bring $2.6 million in revenue for Grand County each year, they’ve used millions of gallons of potable water, a crucial resource in this desert area.
Companies are lining up to extract other Moab-area resources, too. The recent jump in potash prices, from $200 to $900 ton, has created a surge of interest in mining potash in the area. And other companies are eyeing eastern Utah’s tar sands and oil shale.
Meanwhile, competing visions for the future of the Moab area abound. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is floating his own legislative plan, the “Grand Bargain” (see our story “New Route to End Utah’s Wilderness Stalemate”), which sets aside some wilderness and also carves out land for mining and drilling.
Grand County is working on a set of proposals for land use; one of its three alternatives will eventually become part of Bishop’s bill. Local conservationists say the county’s alternatives strongly favor drilling, mining and off-road vehicle use, and ignore the fact that nearly 90 percent of public comments support wilderness and public lands protection.
They’d prefer to see Obama wield the Antiquities Act and make 1.4 million acres of the region into the Greater Canyonlands National Monument. Such a designation would prevent further oil development and block a road that the county wants to build for energy exploration in the Uinta Basin, a prospect that, not surprisingly, alarms those in favor of Bishop’s compromise bill. And, as usual, conservative politicians object strenuously to the idea of more national monuments. The Deseret News reports:
"When the current council was seated, we took a vote and said we were opposed to the monument," Grand County Council Chairman Lynn Jackson said. "We know we live in an iconic landscape, but a unilateral decision made by a small group of people is not the way we believe things should be done."Finally, the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab field office is in the midst of revising its management plan for about a million acres in Grand County and neighboring San Juan County, including the area of the proposed monument. The BLM plan is a “master leasing plan”, a landscape-wide approach to development that the agency adopted in 2010 as a response to criticisms that land use planning was too often piecemeal and done after-the-fact. Our story “The BLM struggles to get ahead of oil and gas development in the West” described the intent of such plans:
“A master leasing plan … allow(s) officials to closely coordinate leasing and development in an area with special resource conflicts. And it allows the BLM to add extra layers of rules to protect wildlife, waterways and other potentially vulnerable resources before a lease auction ever happens.
Ideally, this approach will improve overall land management, sparking fewer lease protests and saving the agency the time and money it spends defending its decisions in court. … Under an MLP, more thorough environmental review and development planning happens before a lease auction is held, so companies know what they have to deal with before they bid.”
The BLM’s environmental analysis efforts have ticked off the energy and potash industries, though, because it’s deferring further leasing until the MLP is complete. The first draft of the Moab-area environmental impact statement should be out this fall. Meanwhile, budget problems at the BLM mean that it’s indefinitely postponed work on four other MLPs in Utah, including the Book Cliffs and Vernal areas.
But in all the fighting over energy resources versus recreational resources, there’s at least one Moab observer who sees both sides. Writer Jim Stiles, who runs the Canyon Country Zephyr from nearby Monticello, had this to say in comments on a Utah Public Radio story:
“A tourist economy desperately needs an ever-growing supply of affordable oil to meet expected increases in tourist visitation. But they fear oil exploitation in their area will adversely affect tourism. Most Moabites fail to see the contradiction. …
Last year I quoted from a United Nations report on the impact of tourism on climate change. 'In 2005, tourism’s contribution to global warming was estimated to contribute between 5% and 14% to the overall warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse.' More specifically, the report noted by 2035, tourism’s contribution to climate change may have grown considerably. Yet most "New Moabites" argue that tourism is a clean alternative economy, a win-win for everyone. …
I am by no means supportive of reckless oil and gas development and extraction. But I just couldn't live with the hypocrisy anymore. When I see Moab address its own contradictions, I'll take their objections seriously. I hope some day, the mainstream media will give the "production vs consumption" issue some real air time, but so far it has been painfully silent.”
Recognizing our own involvement in energy extraction is, of course, essential to any thoughtful consideration of the issue. As Jim and so many others have noted, it’s nothing but hypocrisy to drive to a trailhead, heat your home, run your clothes dryer, etc. while decrying fossil fuel production.
We need oil, and gas, and potash for fertilizer. And we need wild places to camp and hike and sit in. Can we have both? Only if we’re fully aware of the energy demands we put on the planet, and make a real effort not just to meet those demands in a more “responsible” way, but to reduce them substantially. And in the meantime, we need to improve our handling of those demands on public land. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001, recently spoke at the University of Colorado Law School:
To put it succinctly, BLM is completely over matched by the resources and technical expertise of the oil and gas industry, by the pace of the energy boom, and by the overwhelming political pressure exerted by the industry. As a consequence, there is nobody effectively guarding the public interest in our public lands. …
The production of fossil fuels does not require that industry be given license to always use the least cost methods, that environmental values be devalued and subordinated to company demands, and that oil and gas resources lands be allowed to become sacrifice zones.
Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.