The Bureau of Land Management has given Conoco Inc. the go-ahead to drill for oil in southern Utah's new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Agency officials say finding oil is a long shot, and Conoco will probably abandon the area. Environmentalists retort that the BLM is playing dangerous games with a national jewel.


Earlier this month, the BLM approved Conoco's application to drill in Reese Canyon, at the southern end of the monument. "It was a no-brainer," says BLM spokesman Don Banks. The agency had leased the land to Conoco before the monument was created, he says, and one test well in an area already affected by previous oil drilling would do no harm.


"There's been 49 dusters (non-producing wells) in the monument over the last four decades," he says. "If history is a guide, the Reese Canyon well will be duster number 50," he says.


Company spokesman John Bennitt says Conoco won't drill in Reese Canyon until it sees the results of a test well on nearby school trust lands. These results are at least a month away, he says (HCN, 9/1/97).


This should give environmentalists time to appeal the BLM's decision, says Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. His group has joined The Wilderness Society and others in filing an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals to stop Conoco until the BLM finishes its management plan for the monument in 1999.


"Rather than making an active management decision, the BLM has decided it's going to throw the dice," says Groene. "You shouldn't be gambling with national monuments. You should be trying to protect them."


Says Don Banks, "Our friends in the environmental community are looking for something we cannot offer at this time: a guarantee that there will be no oil and gas exploration in the monument, ever." Banks says there are 89 oil and gas leases covering 140,000 acres in the monument. All were signed before President Clinton created the monument last year.


"It's naive not to expect some rough air over this situation in the first couple of years," says Banks. "When the monument came in, it came in on top of a layer of existing leases. These lands come with past histories."


*Greg Hanscom