MOAB, Utah – A different kind of spire is jutting into the iconic red rock vistas of Moab.
It is the scaffolding of drilling rigs, and it heralds a new chapter in Moab’s long history of energy extraction. Moab may have been comfortable with the uranium industry that put it on the map in another century. But having an oil patch amid this area’s popular national parks and renowned recreational backcountry is jarring to some residents.
Gas and oil wells have been drilled piecemeal around here for decades. But today’s wells represent a kind of backcountry industrialization that this area hasn’t dealt with before.
The area where the drilling is taking place attracts an estimated 500,000 backcountry recreationists a year. Those visitors are now a bedrock of Moab’s economy. Seventy percent of jobs in Grand County derive from tourism, and recreation accounts for three times more of the public lands revenue that brings in about $200 million to Moab each year. Extractive industries account for the rest.
On the other side of the economic impact pie, the gas and oil wells that currently are producing add about $2.6 million to Grand County coffers annually. And gas and oil money that flows back to the county from the state topped $1 million last year. The gas and oil reserves still in the ground under the red rock country point to even more future economic windfall. Grand County has an estimated 145 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 32.5 million barrels of oil.
Industry’s visible impact
Out in the oil-rich lands, away from Moab’s ever-expanding hotel strip, transmission pipes are being slung over slick rock, through piñon and juniper trees and across draws where horses, mountain bikes and all-terrain vehicles have long played.
The lights on rigs and the flares from wells can be seen in the night sky from Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park. Truckloads of fluids and sand and oil lumber up and down the twists of Utah 313 that ends where the movie characters Thelma and Louise revved their convertible off a cliff and into eternity.
On a recent morning, backhoes, tracked excavators and dump trucks chewed up the red mud alongside the highway to extend a pipeline to a new well where the smell of anti-corrosion chemicals hung heavy in a winter fog. The well is seven miles from the southern boundary of Arches, a park that attracts more than a million visitors a year.
“I don’t think in other parts of the country people can visualize what is happening here with our landscape,” said Bill Rau, who recently co-founded a small group of activists in Moab called the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety.
The group came into being after Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. began a new type of fracking on one of its 19 producing wells on a 53,000-acre permit area known as Big Flat. Fidelity is building a 24-mile pipeline along with a web of gathering lines to move gas so it won’t have to be burned off in flaring – a drilling-pad process that causes air pollution and has been a disturbing visual to backcountry recreationists.
Fidelity is using a type of mineral oil and a gel combined with oil produced from the well to fracture the underground rock and force it to release more gas and oil. The technique, which Fidelity spokesman Tim Rasmussen called “encouraging,” is used on wells that aren’t producing enough.
In the Moab area, that opens up new drilling possibilities because the oil mixture can be used to stimulate production in a formation that doesn’t respond as well to the traditional water- and chemical-based fracking fluids that are pumped into the ground under high pressure.
Fidelity has permits and plans to drill 52 more wells in that area – some using the oil-fracking technique. That has necessitated building 25 miles of aboveground pipeline and new roads to reach drill pads.
Oil fracking benefits touted
Rasmussen said the idea of fracking in general may be troubling to a Moab population with a long history of environmental activism, but he said that oil fracking has benefits over traditional means: It requires only four to six hours of fracking in a single day compared with several days of around-the-clock work with traditional fluids. It uses 2,200 barrels of oil-based fluid rather than the more than 55,000 barrels of the traditional fluids used on most fracking jobs.
And the oil that flows back to the surface after fracking can be sold and refined into gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel and motor oil or used in plastics manufacturing.
A worker on Fidelity’s oil-fracked well, who would not give his name, said the technique works well where it has been used to boost production in his home country of Canada.
“It is a good method for working over wells that aren’t producing,” he said.
Tony Lema, who owns the Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery and has lived in Moab for 54 years, said he used to hunt in the area where the drilling now is concentrated, but he is not opposed to the changes it has wrought.
He is philosophical about the evolution of Moab.
“There are all kinds of intrusion here, whether it be oil wells or mountain bikes,” Lema said. “I still think there is plenty of ground here for recreation, for oil people and for people who want to see things untouched.”
More energy projects possible
Others are not as happy – and their dissatisfaction is not solely focused on gas and oil drilling.
They view it as ironic that, just as the contaminated mesa-sized pile of uranium tailings on the north edge of town is being scooped up and hauled away after decades of worry about its makeup, fracking has moved in.
Add to that plans for a nuclear power plant, two refineries, the country’s first tar sands operation and an experimental oil-shale project. All those environment-impacting projects are in various stages of approvals and permitting to the north of Moab.
“If I had to do it over today, I would not move to Moab,” said Deb Walter, a retiree who came to the area seven years ago and recently helped form the pipeline opposition group.
She said the Utah Chapter’s Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance also have been involved in opposing some of the energy projects around Moab and have filed formal complaints with the Bureau of Land Management to stop further exploratory drilling, but there are so many pressures from so many points right now that “they are overwhelmed.”
Back of Beyond Books in downtown Moab long has been a magnet for the environmentally minded, and owner Andy Nettell said he is hearing from customers who don’t like what they are seeing in the backcountry.
Nettell was previously a ranger at several national parks, including Arches, and he said he doesn’t believe there should be fracking – traditional or oil – near parks.
“There’s got to be some buffer zones to the national parks. We attract people from all over the world who are coming here solely for the scenic values, and to have this right on the borders of the parks is just not right,” Nettell said.