Fracking in Utah’s Escalante canyons?

Powerless when a company comes to my small town.


Early last month, employees from Front Runner Seismic, a Pennsylvania company, showed up in my small town of Escalante, Utah, population 800.

They quietly went about their business, knocking on doors and offering various contracts for mineral leases and access to private property. The men told residents they represented Denver energy developer James K. Munn. He’s after oil, and he believes there’s some to be had underneath our small town, located in the heart — though not actually within the boundaries — of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. My husband and I moved to Escalante five years ago to live in this desert we’d come to know and love. Both native Utahns, we had independently found solace here over the years. We still do.

When residents asked the men about fracking, Munn’s representative gave this answer: We are not ruling it out. In conversations with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining, the agency confirmed that the company would certainly not rule out fracking, because this controversial extraction method has become routine: Today, 95 percent of all wells in Utah are fracked.

The impacts of fracking are indisputable. Anyone driving through Colorado, Wyoming or New Mexico can witness them. Air becomes foul; there is less water for drinking, gardens, fruit trees and agriculture, and what remains is often no longer usable. Property values plummet, trapping people in financial ruin.

The process begins with seismic testing, which is scheduled to begin shortly along town roads that lie in front of homes. However, neither Munn nor his representatives have filed the necessary permits with Utah’s oil and gas agency, permits that are required by law before seismic testing can be conducted. Some types of seismic testing are more likely than others to damage wells, water lines, sewer lines and building foundations, but none are considered benign. If you ask them directly, Munn’s representatives will tell you about these details; but if you don’t, they see no need to mention it.

You might wonder why a tiny, remote town would attract the purveyors of such devastation, especially a town that defends its agricultural future with passion, a town that relies on the tourist dollars spent every year by the approximately 750,000 visitors to the monument, a town in which water is both scarce and sacred.

The answer is complicated. Many landowners here do not own the mineral rights under their property. Some subsurface rights are held privately, others by state or federal entities, but the bottom line is this: If Munn secures the mineral rights under my property, I have no legal right to keep him from drilling and fracking on my land. Because I don’t own the mineral rights, I lack the power to say no. And any financial compensation that’s offered will come nowhere near the financial loss I’ll face.

Even if I were lucky enough to own my mineral rights, it is still doubtful that the proposed compensation would exceed my loss. Finance companies are now quietly refusing to offer mortgages for properties that have oil or gas leases on them, and homeowner insurance policies will not cover damage from seismic testing or energy exploration. Such is the legal system we’ve constructed for the extraction industry in our country. So James K. Munn has every legal right to tear apart my garden, strip my home of its value, empty my bank accounts into his, and essentially raze my life.

What I took for granted in Escalante, and what every visitor to the monument seeks — quiet nights, pure air and the simple beauty of watching the sunrise over the Escalante River gorge — is now threatened. In its place is the promise of truck traffic, lights, noise, storage tanks and noxious fumes.

I moved to Escalante to escape that kind of thing. I fled from unrestrained growth in my hometown of Tooele, Utah, and the unbreathable air in Salt Lake City. This time, however, there will be no escape. Studies show that homes within 2.5 miles of drilling operations — even conventional, non-fracking operations — drop in value between 12 and 24 percent. If an oil well is visible, the devaluation rises.

In Escalante, we tend to fight a lot — we’ve been disagreeing with each other since long before the monument was designated in 1996. But I would happily return to quibbling with my neighbors over streetlights, all-terrain vehicle routes and grazing rights. We now face a larger threat, because drilling and mining is unlikely to benefit any of us who want to stay here. It also benefits none of the owners of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — and they include every U.S. citizen — or the staggering beauty that is the hallmark of this extraordinary landscape.  The only person who benefits from our loss is James K. Munn.  At what point do we engage our humanity and band together to stop a scourge that could devour every small town across the country?

Jana Richman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She writes from Escalante, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Bill Grant
Bill Grant
Dec 16, 2013 08:07 PM
I think I can sympathize with some of the writers pain, but really feel most of it is fear of the unknown, at least in her case. Fracking has been going on for at least 60 years. It works, and the supposed harm is frankly bogus and unproven. has countered all of the falsehoods in gasland, a lie only exceeded by the affordable care act.
As a retired oil and gas exploration company owner, I can attest to the problems that occur with split minerals - surface and mineral owners are separate and very unequal. What really needs to happen is for surface owners in states with preponderant mineral ownership by the state and federal government, to press for legislation to grant the excess royalties over the historic 1/8 to the surface owner, or even to split royalties outright between the mineral owner and the surface owner.
This would immediately cause another tune to be whistled.
It may wind up not being too big a deal anyway, as the economics of gas drilling have migrated out of western Colorado to the front range, the Bakkan shale(Montana & North Dakota), and the Marcellus shale in the northeast. Witness Encanna leaving next year, and then probably more to follow. I pity the counties and cities that were relying on a constant stream of oil and gas dollars to support local real estate, schools, and tax revenues. So, relax. The primary source of pollution in your backyard will be you and the other visitors(reportedly 750,000), and they probably won't be arriving on bikes, but instead, fossil carbon burning automobiles. Probably a much worse pollutant than anything a gas company could imagine.
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare Subscriber
Jan 22, 2014 11:49 AM
Bill, you make some good points. But perhaps I can paint another side of the picture. I have no idea where you live, but I gather that you are not familiar with the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Monument is 2,970 square miles in size. If you include the towns that sit wholly within the Monument, the size grows to around 3,000 square miles, or a whopping 1,920,000 acres - almost three times the size of Rhode Island with a population of 1,050,000 people. Population of Escalante? Eight hundred. So the concept of 750,000 visitors a year, which you imply creates a jammed and dirty environment is not the case. The GSENM is a huge, vast, clean, lovely, and lonely place. I suspect that Rhode Island, at a bit more than a third the size, experiences far more traffic than that every day, not just every year.

You also feel that the author and residents of the small town of Escalante have nothing to fear because fracking has not been proven to be dangerous. I think the author's point was that fracking or not, drilling rigs and wells are an eye sore that lower property values. And make one's eyes sore. Many once lovely areas of the west have been turned into what any reasonable person would conclude as an ugly landscape. And this has often occurred in a frighteningly short time. And that's not even considering the vast volume of large truck traffic. As far as fracking not having been absolutely not proven to be unsafe - according to whom you speak, lets call that a true statement. However, it certainly has not been proven safe either. So I do wonder, do you eat and drink and feed things to your children that have a great controversy about their safety so long as they have not been absolutely proven to be unsafe? Don't you wait until they have been proven safe? And as far as "drilling probably won't happen anyway, so not to worry"…hmmm…one wonders than why Mr. Munn is spending so much money on something he's not going to do.

As far as splitting a higher percentage of royalties with land owners getting them to soon change their tune. Sure…some. But really, nobody….absolutely nobody moves to the town of Escalante to make more money there than where they came from. If the author and her husband were money oriented, they'd have stayed in Tooele, Utah and commuted into Salt Lake City - both places that, in my opinion, have pretty much lost their once natural beauty to industry. It's always weird to breath air that you can see. I thought it was supposed to be invisible. Not to stereotype, but an oilman may struggle with the concept of values more dear than money. What would work better for the landowners would be to own and control what is beneath their land so they could just say "NO!"

As far as your statement that the primary source of pollution in the author's backyard will be herself….you need to visit Escalante. The town has its problems, but pollution and litter are not among them.

Your Fracnation documentary certainly received some good reviews. And some horrible reviews. I don't think that one could say that it successfully countered all the falsehoods of Gasland. There exist many questions about its production and bias. And finally, I won't even bother to remark on the totally unrelated comment of yours about the falsehood of The Affordable Care Act. I am stilling having a hard time seeing its relevance to this op-ed about drilling in Escalante.
Melissa  Troutman
Melissa Troutman
May 01, 2014 02:48 PM
Fracnation was a propaganda film aimed at 'debunking' another film. Take a look at the facts - evidence from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania - in another documentary, coming west later this year, Triple Divide at

The impacts are real & no health surveys have been conducted. Public Herald continues to investigate -