“This is a scale like nothing we’ve seen so far as far as leasing outside our national parks,” said Erika Pollard, associate director for the southwest region at the National Parks Conservation Association. “ . . . It’s a big chunk of the public land out there.”
While the BLM can reject nominations as it prepares lease sales for auction in September, Trump administration policy tilts decisions in favor of energy development.
In an email Tuesday, BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney said the bureau was still in the process of reviewing lease nominations and had not reached any final decisions.
“All lease sales undergo an environmental analysis to determine potential impacts of development before they are put forward for lease,” she said, adding that the agency could not discuss details until that assessment is published this spring.
“The BLM has the duty to manage land for multiple uses,” she added, “which means balancing a variety of activities on public lands, including energy development and recreation.”
Environmentalists, including Pollard and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director Steve Bloch, said the black night skies would be obscured by lighting and methane flaring if the nominated area is developed to such a degree. The profound quiet of the landscape would vanish. The air quality and views — visibility for 100 miles on a clear day — would be disturbed, they warned.
The pressure for development is increasing both northwest and southwest of Moab, Bloch said, which could harm the region’s recreation industry.
“No one is traveling to Moab from around the world to see flaring, or to see oil and gas operations,” Bloch said. “And if even a portion of these leases are sold, it would fundamentally change the nature of Utah’s Red Rock Country from an area that has internationally renowned dark night skies and natural quiet to an industrial zone.”
Just a few weeks ago the BLM pulled two leases slated for auction on Moab’s Slickrock Trail because of protests from the state’s Republican governor and local officials, who argued the legendary mountain biking spot should be off-limits to drilling.
Trump officials have pressed to expand oil and gas drilling across the country, both on public lands and offshore. Since January 2017, the federal government has auctioned off more than 9.9 million acres of leases to oil and gas firms: A little more than half the area slated for drilling is located onshore.
According to a recent analysis by the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, if all the fossil fuels buried in those sites was extracted and burned, it would translate into between 1 billion and 5.95 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the air. That upward measure is equal to half the annual carbon output of China, the world’s biggest emitter. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has been linked to climate change.