The Interior Department's Remarkable Decision to Not Allow the Drilling of Utah Wilderness


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in an example of how the land management system should work, made an announcement today to cancel a proposal that would have permitted drilling for oil and gas on thousands of acres within Utah’s incomparable San Rafael Swell wilderness. The notion that drillers were petitioning to allow drilling within the San Rafael Swell wilderness was a ludicrous overreach by the oil and gas industry, but an assessment that BLM was formally contemplating. The proposal to drill was particularly concerning given the resource in question – a two-million acre, 75-mile long natural feature that rises up from the south-central Utah landscape. Given its relative proximity to Salt Lake Valley, the area is beloved by many for its unique geological features and the abundant recreational opportunities it affords. In addition, the area is also home to scores of remarkable American Indian rock art sites and the Old Spanish Trail.

Despite its wilderness character, the BLM announced this summer that the land management agency would be going forward at its upcoming November 2013 oil and gas lease auction to offer approximately 80,000 acres of oil and gas leases within the wilderness-quality lands of the San Rafael Swell. This was particularly concerning given that in the past decade, the BLM has often chosen to wrongly proceed with leasing in Utah wilderness areas even though such actions are typically contrary to federal laws designed to protect these areas from such abuses. One only had to look at the Bush administration’s notorious decision to issue 77 leases on the border of Arches National Park in 2008, along with the more recent decision this year to allow over a thousand wells to be leased within the Desolation Canyon wilderness, to see that BLM’s summer announcement to nominate leasing within the San Rafael Swell was part of an alarming pattern that elevated oil and gas industry interests over conservation requirements.

It also worth mentioning that today’s decision will not impact the fact that the upcoming November Utah BLM oil and gas auction will still offer 35 parcels covering 44,021 acres for leasing – mostly north of the San Rafael Swell – but not in areas that qualify as wilderness. Combined with the knowledge that as of today, the oil and gas industry sit on 2,205 federal drilling permits in Utah that are not being utilized, and nearly 3,600 permits total when adding in state, tribal, and fee lands, today’s decision to defer leasing for approximately 50 parcels on 88,000 acres of wilderness quality lands in the San Rafael Swell will not impact the economic fortunes of the oil and gas industry – an industry that is thriving in the state.  But by electing to not lease within the San Rafael Swell, BLM’s decision will certainly help Utah’s other growth industry, the outdoor recreation and travel industry which generates nearly $7 billion in annual revenue within the state.


Today’s decision is extraordinary due to the fact that the BLM in Utah chose to finally implement a series of administrative safeguards that exist primarily to avoid agency decisions that would auction off lands for drilling within wilderness quality lands. Those who would quibble with today’s decision reveal a bias and attitude that would probably contend that there are no lands unique enough to be protected from drilling. But by definition, the San Rafael Swell wilderness is exactly the type of landscape that should never be opened to oil and gas extraction.

(Photo Credits: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)