Utah monument set up by Clinton opened as oil site Region was designated in '96

Conoco to drill there

September 09, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- One year after President Clinton pleased environmentalists by declaring a wide swath of southern Utah a national monument, his administration decided yesterday to open the region to oil and gas drilling.

The Bureau of Land Management, taking advantage of what critics say was a loosely worded presidential declaration, gave Conoco Inc. permission to explore for oil and gas in the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the basis of a lease signed before Clinton declared the land off-limits.

Clinton's decision to create the national monument, made in the final weeks of the 1996 presidential election, brought strong complaints from Utah residents and industry interests. Yesterday, the complaints came from environmentalists expressing concerns that the decision to allow operation of a single exploratory drilling rig would eventually open other areas of the monument to oil exploration.

"We think it's a very big deal," says Frances A. Hunt, director of public lands studies for the Wilderness Society. "It would be the first time oil and gas drilling would be allowed in a national monument. It makes a mockery of the notion this area will be protected."

But R. E. Irelan, Conoco's regional manager for exploration and production, said oil exploration "can coexist quite nicely with the intent of the monument and people who want solitude." He also noted that the company was already drilling one mile from the exploration site, on land within the boundaries of the monument but under different jurisdiction.

On Sept. 18, 1996, Clinton used the Grand Canyon as a campaign backdrop to sweep aside opposition in Congress to granting federal protection to the region. Legislative efforts to bar coal mining in the area had been foundering under sharp attack from the Utah congressional delegation. So acting under a 1906 law known as the Antiquities Act, Clinton used his presidential authority to designate the 1.7 million-acre national monument.

But his declaration left open the possibility of oil exploration by those holding valid leases for plots within the designated lands -- provided the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, granted environmental approval.

The BLM has since determined that "there is no significant environmental impact from a single drilling hole at this particular site," a senior Interior Department official said.

Bill Lamb, the Utah state director of the BLM, emphasized that the permit allowed a single exploratory well at a previously disturbed area near an existing dirt road. The operation "will not have significant impact upon the geological, paleontological, archaeological, historical, or biological values the monument was specifically established to protect," he said.

Irelan said the drilling had a "one in 10 shot" at finding ample oil reserves. Conoco's exploratory well on state-controlled land a mile away has gone down 8,000 feet, and the company plans to drill each site to at least 14,000 feet -- a depth usually reached in 70 days or less, he said. The Conoco official said the site for the drilling operation would be no larger than a square mile. The Texas-based oil company has multiple leases in the region that expire as late as 2002.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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