Energy leases: Let’s hold back some of our last best places

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 5:03 PM
Star tracks over Hovenweep ruins. The monument was designated as the world’s 17th International Dark Sky Park in 2014.

In March, the Bureau of Land Management sold oil and gas leases on parcels totaling 51,400 acres in southeastern Utah, including some near Hovenweep National Monument (Journal, April 20).

That’s welcome news for energy companies and their employees, as well as for support industries, although there’s no sign development is imminent. But energy extraction comes with some major drawbacks, and investment here comes with some risks.

Although it is clear that the Trump administration is very supportive of energy development, this is an odd time to be pushing it. Prices remain relatively low, and even a draw-down of U.S. stockpiles and a tightening of OPEC policy have not, so far, pushed gasoline prices beyond their traditional summer jump.

The United States is not experiencing an oil crisis. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 2018 U.S. crude oil production will average 10.7 million barrels per day, and 2019 crude oil production will average 11.4 million. (The previous record was 9.6 million in 1970.)

Consumption is up too – partly driven by low prices. A $4 per-gallon price at the pump would change consumers’ transportation habits, but automakers, not currently pushing to bring more fuel-efficient cars to market, don’t foresee that day coming soon.

A new record for natural gas production will be set this year as well. Demand was driven by the harsh winter experienced in the more populous areas of the country and partly by a shift to the use of natural gas in power generation. Abundant natural gas supplies hold down the price for that commodity.

So why the rush to sell leases that may not be developed for many years to come?

Even if and when those calculations change – and even with the national monument shrinkage to facilitate energy extraction in southeastern Utah and the potential of more leases in northwestern New Mexico – this region is not going to compete with Texas or North Dakota. It might make good sense, then, to save the resources in this more difficult landscape for a time when the easier fields have been depleted.

Hovenweep officials had requested the lease sale be deferred, citing potential damage to archaeological resources and possible degradation of visitors’ experience by vibrations, noise, dust, air pollution and development within the viewshed. Archaeological tourism is part of an ever-increasing outdoor economy, and it’s both more sustainable and less volatile than the energy economy. Let’s not jeopardize that revenue source. The monument has become known for its dark, clear night skies, isolated from light pollution and haze caused by cities and industries; that reputation is also threatened.

The stipulations requested by Hovenweep to protect the environment, the archaeological resources and experience there are not unreasonable, and the National Park Service position deserved much greater consideration than it received. Public comment periods are growing increasingly short as well. That’s not right. There was time to work through the issues that were raised, and there was no need for such a rush to market.

There may come a time when the Four Corners is the last, best source of fossil fuels that the U.S. can tap. At the current rate of consumption, some of us may live to see that happen.

Until then, let’s consider holding back some of the last, best, wildest places.