Energy boom's forward guard stalls out in Utah ... for now

by Adam Burke

DOME PLATEAU, Utah - Thumper trucks have been rolling over this rugged chunk of public land a few miles from Arches National Park for only a few days, but already, they have taken on an ominous heft. News articles in Western and national newspapers have drawn attention to the machines. More than once, stories have told of "thumper trucks, pounding the earth in a seismic search for oil deposits ..."

Writer Terry Tempest Williams, an ardent defender of Utah's redrock desert, penned an essay for the New York Times that characterized the trucks as "giant mechanical insects."

"At the time, the Bush energy plan was at best an abstraction and at worst a secret," Tempest Williams said later. "I wanted to give the American public a picture of what was happening on the ground in Utah."

It's early February, and I'm heading south off Interstate 70, near Cisco, Utah, in search of the thumpers, which have, deservedly or not, become a symbol of the Bush energy policy in the Intermountain West. A helicopter passes over head, with a basket cabled to its belly: seismic gear moving from a central staging area to crews working somewhere on this 36-square-mile area.

Soon I see truck treads unfurl off the road alongside pink flagging and something like a long extension cord. The trucks have rolled over many things: soft, lumpy soil; rocks, bunch grasses, blackbrush, even a few juniper trees. But when I find them, they are temporarily stuck down in the nearest drainage. The lead driver makes several charges up a steep incline, giant tires chewing the embankment. The engine roar is deafening.

They finally make it out of the draw, and I get a closer look: They are segmented like insects; the center section, a tangle of hydraulic pipes and pistons, bears a steel plate the size of a card table. With a shudder and belch of exhaust, the trucks slowly drop their plates to the earth in unison. A low bass tone is barely audible above the engine noise. Tiny grains of sand and dust dance and skitter across the soil surface, like ants swarming out of the ground.

This scene is repeated hundreds of times over the next several days on Dome Plateau, while more headlines break across the national news about the Bush administration's push for more oil and gas development on public lands. A little research reveals that these trucks won't reduce Utah's signature sandstone arches to rubbled dust. But there's no denying that the backlash they provoke at Dome Plateau foreshadows an escalating war over energy development in the Intermountain West.

What's in a name?

But first things first: The 40,000-pound trucks don't thump. They don't "pound the earth," as news stories continue to report, and are actually much more precise and gentle than old-school exploration. They have to be. The days of striking large fields of black gold by accident are long gone. Only smaller, unproven reserves remain on public lands.

Known in the industry as "vibroseis vehicles," the trucks move in a straight line across miles of terrain, stopping in 220-foot increments to send sound waves into the ground. The waves rebound off various geologic features below the earth's surface, and then are picked up by arrays of sensors or "geophones" inserted into the ground. The sound is conveyed via miles of cables and battery packs to a central recording bank. The result is a highly detailed picture that can show an area as large as 300 square miles, and thousands of feet deep.

Industry officials say modern seismic exploration actually increases environmental protection. These trucks, which have been in use for decades, allow oil and gas developers to drill with surgical precision, greatly reducing the number of exploratory wells. The balloon tires and articulated midsection make cross-country travel easy and road building unnecessary.

"Most companies have equipped them with very large tires that spread out the weight so that in terms of actual pounds per square inch there's no more than an average vehicle," says Stuart Wright, a geophysicist for Western GeCo, the energy contractor exploring at Dome Plateau. "It's our contention that any impact is minimal and ephemeral. It tends to heal itself rather quickly. But if you don't want to take our word for it, you can go out there and judge for yourself."

Such light-footed mobility has led industry and the Bureau of Land Management to view the thumper trucks as a relatively minor intrusion. On Dome Plateau, the agency's decision to permit Western GeCo to conduct seismic work concluded that the project would "not result in any undue and unnecessary environmental degradation."

But several other agencies raised concerns, especially about soil disturbance, which, in the desert, can lead quickly to wind and water erosion. Letters from the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency all said the BLM's draft environmental assessment was lacking.

Jayne Belnap, a soil scientist with USGS's Moab office, took issue with the BLM's suggestion that soil and vegetation would recover in three to five years. "Recovery of soil compaction, biological soil crusts, and most desert shrubs (in this desert system) is on the order of at least multiple decades," Belnap wrote.

These letters, in counterpoint to internal BLM memos, raised the hackles of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which claimed that the BLM was favoring energy development at the expense of environmental protection and public input.

The group circulated an August 2001 memo from BLM's Utah office that instructs Utah field offices make drilling and leasing their "No. 1 priority."

But Maggie Wyatt, manager of the BLM's Moab Field Office, says she wasn't pressured to go ahead with the project. "These are lands that have been leased for over five years," says Wyatt. "It's not BLM policy that dictates whether a company decides to explore or drill. It's market prices."

Wyatt admits the trucks damage fragile soils, but says "the area of disturbance represents a very small part of the project area - less than 1 percent. So we found this to be an impact that was not significant."

SUWA and several other groups thought otherwise. They asked for a stay on the Dome Plateau project from the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), presenting photos of the trucks working in wet soils, and close-up shots of deep tire ruts.

On Feb. 22, the IBLA shut down the one-week-old project, raising concerns that the BLM had not analyzed a full range of alternative actions, ignored the comments of sister agencies, and may have acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. The BLM and the company said the delay would cost Western GeCo upwards of $40,000 a day while crews waited on stand-by, but the IBLA's director of appeals Robert More wrote: "A delay of four to seven months and the attendant costs pale by comparison to resource harms lasting decades or even centuries."

Making waves

The IBLA stay immediately raised the public scrutiny of seismic projects, and stepped up the level of caution within BLM. The Vernal, Utah, BLM field office has a seismic project under review, and though it won't involve vibroseis vehicles, citizens are already calling the field office to voice objections.

The agency is also reviewing a 19-square-mile thumper truck project for the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, created by President Clinton in 2000.

"We want to learn from the vulnerabilities that were identified with the (Dome Plateau) environmental assessment, and demonstrate to the public that we fully considered the range of the alternatives out here," says Helen Mary Johnson of the BLM's Durango field office, who recently released a draft environmental assessment of the canyons project for public comment.

All told, there are at least half a dozen seismic projects of various sizes proposed on BLM land in the next several months, adding to what activists say has been several years of acceleration of seismic exploration projects. In the Green River Basin of southwestern Wyoming, at least eight projects were carried out last fall alone, says Dan Heilig, executive director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

"That's more than the previous decade," he says, "and we're talking about big projects - 200, even 300 square miles."

Heilig says that while the increases in exploration and drilling may be driven by market forces, the pressure on BLM field offices from the top is leaving less and less time for discussion and analysis.

"What we're seeing are subtle shifts in the way permits are handled, and a limiting of public involvement whenever possible," says Heilig. "Thumper trucks aren't the worst (impact) we see, but they are a step in that process that leads to more development."

Stalking the elusive energy policy

For almost a year, the Bush administration has made clear in agency memos and promises to the American public that increasing energy development on public lands is a top priority. In March, the BLM came forward with an outline for how it plans to accomplish this goal. At a two-day summit in Denver, agency officials outlined a 43-part task list that includes efforts to speed up the permitting process for leases and drilling permits and to "streamline" environmental review. The agency is also revising land-use plans, which may alter various seasonal protections for wildlife, and open up new areas to exploration. And the BLM may reduce the royalties companies pay to drill on public land.

The plan received qualified praise from industry representatives. "This is a good first step, but it's very general," says Ken Leonard, senior manager for the American Petroleum Institute. "What we need now is for the BLM to move toward a permitting process that is not designed to delay but rather to decide."

Citizen and environmental groups in attendance were skeptical.

"BLM simply does not have the manpower to properly go out and do environmental assessments and studies on the effects of this drilling," said Jim Baca, who headed the BLM for two years during the Clinton administration. "They have about the same amount of people today as they did 10 years ago, their budgets have been continually cut, and so they don't really have the expertise in place to make good decisions."

The BLM puts aside such criticism. "There's a tendency for folks to equate an effort to speed up time frames with less public involvement and less environmental protection. But that's not necessarily the case," says Pete Culp, the BLM's assistant secretary for minerals and resource protection. "We're trying to show that it isn't really a matter of streamlining, it's about cooperation and communication."

But if the Dome Plateau project is any indication, it remains to be seen whether the BLM has the legal room to maneuver between executive direction and environmental law. And the test for whether cooperation and communication will apply in this case is coming soon. The Interior Department has directed the IBLA to fast-track its review of SUWA's Dome Plateau appeal. A decision is expected by August.

 

Adam Burke is producer of Radio High Country News. Check out our Web site for continuing radio coverage of energy issues in the West (www.hcn.org).

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

Copies of the environmental assessment can be seen at www.co.blm.gov/canm/index.html. Written comments can be made through May 31 and should be addressed to Manager, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, c/o Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Hwy. 184, Dolores, CO 81323, or e-mailed to Colorado_CANM@co.blm.gov.

© High Country News