Is there oil under Utah's new monument?

  Conoco announced recently that it wants to drill one or two exploratory wells in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the newly established 1.7 million-acre wilderness preserve in southeastern Utah (HCN, 9/30/96). The oil company hopes to begin testing wells on two 10-year leases before they expire in November, but the company is also testing something else - President Clinton's official proclamation to recognize "valid existing mineral rights' in the monument.

It's too early to tell if oil drilling will be deemed a "compatible use" of the monument lands, says Jerry Meredith of the Bureau of Land Management's Utah office. Conoco must first undergo a potentially time-consuming federal environmental review. Estimates of the worth of fossil fuel reserves in Reese Canyon, 45 miles south of Escalante, range up to $200 billion.

Conoco spokesperson John Bennitt says he thinks drilling for oil can coexist with the monument "in an environmentally responsible way. We think we can do it because we have done it in the past."

Scott Groene, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, believes coexistence is impossible: "you either protect the place or you have the oil fields ..." "This is not plain old multi-use BLM land. This is an area that has rigid protection for the natural resources."

*Sarah Dry

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