Energy development is nibbling around the edges of the brand-new Bears Ears National Monument. If monument boundaries change, there is potential for more oil and gas drilling in certain areas to the north and east.
The Bears Ears area in southeastern Utah is a giant expanse of red rocks, thick forests and high plateaus. This land is sacred to many Native American tribes. It’s also used for cattle grazing by nearby ranchers and contains fossil fuel deposits. Outdoor enthusiasts treasure the landscape, parts of which are world-class rock climbing destinations. The region has been the focus of bitter land wars between locals and the federal government for decades.
To say that this remote area is controversial would be an understatement, especially after President Obama made 1.35 million acres of it into the Bears Ears National Monument in December. The entire Utah congressional delegation opposed this move.
Now, that monument designation could change. In April, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Interior Department to review national monuments of a certain size “in recognition of the importance of the Nation’s wealth of natural resources to American workers and the American economy.”
After a four-month review of 27 monuments, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke handed off his recommendations to President Trump, but has not made them public. The Washington Post reported that Zinke recommended reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah –Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante – as well as Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Zinke had proposed shrinking Bears Ears in an interim report earlier in the review process.
Could this happen? Here’s what we know:
The Bears Ears area is huge. Widespread energy development is unlikely.
There are dozens of abandoned oil and gas wells within monument boundaries, but none are active, according to Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas & Mining. The last producing well in the monument was drilled in 1984 and stopped producing in 1992.
The cost of getting oil and gas to market from such a remote and rugged area could be prohibitive, and experts say the fossil fuel deposits just aren’t economically recoverable.
“Historically, in say the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there was some drilling out in this area, but nothing significant was found,” said John Rogers, Associate Director of Oil & Gas at the Utah Division of Natural Resources. “So all the wells out there have been plugged and abandoned…Now, on the fringe, up to the north, there are some people leasing. Within the monument, nothing.”
Rogers adds that over time, the economic viability of drilling in the area hasn’t really changed.
“When oil was up above $100 per barrel, nobody was racing out here to do anything. Everything was in the northern part of Utah, the Uinta Basin,” Rogers said. “Now with oil down to $45, $50 per barrel, there’s even less incentive. If they shrink the size of the monument or alter it in some way, I don’t see anyone rushing in there because they’ve had decades to do it and they’ve done nothing.”
But there is development clustered around Bears Ears monument boundaries.
There is oil and gas production in both the Cane Creek shale play to the north and the Greater Aneth Field to the east. Both are part of the Paradox Basin, a formation located mostly in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.
Kirkwood Oil & Gas operates around 30 wells in the Cane Creek area and a few hundred more in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nevada. Steve Degenfelder, a landman for Kirkwood, said the company’s Utah wells are located around five miles from the northern border of Bears Ears and are “primary assets.”
Degenfelder says that one of those wells, Cane Creek Unit 12-1, was a huge producer back in 2012. In fact, it was one the most productive onshore oil well in the country, producing 42,842 barrels of oil over 31 days. But over the past few years, production has plummeted.
“What we’re trying to do – the experience with this past well – we feel like that shows great potential. We’re trying to see if we can be as productive,” Degenfeld said.
Now, Kirkwood is drilling a new well a few miles from the monument’s northern boundary and plans to drill two more in the area by the end of the year.
“Everything is economic,” Degenfelder said. “If the price of oil rises a little more, it makes all oil and gas fields more economic. If it falls, it makes it less economic.”
Industry has shown interest in future production in and around Bears Ears.
With something called an Express of Interest (EOI), energy companies have asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to include parcels just outside current Bears Ears monument boundaries in its March 2018 oil and gas lease sale, according to information from the Western Energy Project. These maps to the left, compiled by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, show interest in leases near Bears Ears.
This interest is not new. According to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, since 2013, industry has nominated over 100,000 acres – inside monument boundaries and within one mile – for inclusion in lease sales. These parcels are clustered around the northern and southeastern borders. Kirkwood Oil & Gas has nominated at least nine of them. The BLM reviews these requests before deciding whether or not to actually include parcels in a lease sale.
In a statement on oil and gas leasing in the Bears Ears area, the Utah BLM said the following:
“There are 23 existing federal oil and gas leases either partially or wholly located with the Bears Ears National Monument boundary – and no authorized or pending applications for permit to drill (APDs) for these leases. Currently, BLM Utah is not exploring new leases nor evaluating expressions of interest in the Monument.”