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Oil Exploration OKd on U.S. Monument Land

September 09, 1997|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

The Bureau of Land Management, under 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. On Monday, 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," said 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 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 for 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.

Describing the rugged red-rock territory 70 miles to the north as "some of the most remarkable land in the world," Clinton said that "its uniquely American landscape is now one of the most isolated places in the lower 48 states. In protecting it, we live up to our obligation to preserve our natural heritage."

"Sometimes progress is measured in mastering frontiers, but sometimes we must measure progress in protecting frontiers for our children and all children to come," Clinton said.

But his declaration left open the possibility of oil exploration by those holding valid leases for plots within the designated lands--provided that 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 bureau, emphasized that the permit allowed a single exploratory well at a previously disturbed area near a dirt road. The operation "will not have significant impact upon the geological, paleontological, archeological, historical or biological values the monument was specifically established to protect," he said.

Irelan said the drilling had a "1 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 far into the future as 2002, but the lease for the new site was to expire at the end of this year.

One aide to a House Democrat who has long opposed development in southern Utah said the White House has opened the door to oil exploration in the monument. He said the decision to create the monument was not made final until the afternoon before Clinton announced it, leading to a "certain amount of sloppiness" in the wording that opened the way for the exploration.

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