By JIM GIBBENS
Conoco Oil has until the end of this year to begin drilling an exploratory oil well on Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau. That’s when the lease to drill within the newly created Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument expires.
But don’t plan on seeing any drilling soon. The company doesn’t plan on drilling until it evaluates information from another exploratory well just outside the monument.
“We will not drill until after an evaluation is made from a well about a mile away on state land,” said John Bennitt, a spokesman for Conoco.
The company has won permission to drill in the monument after a review by the Interior Department.
Spokesperson Stephanie Hanna, in an interview with the Associated Press, said the proposal went through a normal process. She also indicated the leases were never in jeopardy.
“When President Clinton created the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, it was with the understanding that valid existing rights would be considered.”
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said that allowing the drilling, shows that President Clinton and Al Gore are election year environmentalists only.
SUWA, along with the Sierra Club, is filing an appeal with the Board of Land Administration to stop the approval.
“The BLM is playing a dangerous game with the future of the monument,” said SUWA spokesperson, Tom Price.
“We want the monument protected for its natural beauty and not exploited for its resources.”
SUWA wants the leases suspended because they were granted under the “skimpy assessment criteria” for BLM land.
Conoco offered to suspend the leases but was advised by the BLM to go forward.
Bennitt said there are precautions taken when drilling in sensitive areas.
“Even human waste is self contained and hauled away,” Bennitt said.
But Price is not convinced. He says the only reason the BLM granted permission to drill is because they think there will not be enough oil under the monument worth drilling.
Bennitt disagrees. He says geologists have indicated there is a “significant amount” of oil in the plateau. He said the land they would be drilling on looks similar to land in the west desert of Utah and has no aesthetic value.
Price said even the EPA and the Division of Fish and Wildlife Services think drilling within the monument would be devastating.