SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The latest flashpoint for oil and gas drilling in Utah is around the San Rafael Swell, a region so remote Butch Cassidy hid from authorities there.
Little has changed in the landscape of canyons, reefs, mesa tops and hoodoos, and a state petroleum geologist said Tuesday that the region contains few oil or gas prospects barring an unexpected discovery.
This uplift of central Utah, 75 miles long by 35 miles wide, is federal land without the protection of a national park or monument or designated wilderness. On the edges of the Swell, lease parcels are being offered by a federal land-management agency that is following a Bush administration playbook for opening new areas of Utah for drilling.
The Bureau of Land Management said Tuesday it added a "boots-on-the-ground" test to avoid leasing areas worthy of wilderness protection.
"These parcels are on the east and west flank and northern nose of the Greater Swell area, but certainly not in the heart of it," said Kent Hoffman, BLM's deputy Utah director of lands and minerals.
The Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other groups filed formal objections on Monday to the leasing of parcels totaling 125 square miles around the Swell, part of a larger auction set for Nov. 19.
Opponents say it's a replay of December 2008, when BLM tried to auction drilling parcels around Canyonlands and Arches national parks. A college student sabotaged the auction by offering dozens of bids he couldn't pay for. Tim DeChristopher spent 21 months in prison.
Around the same time, environmental groups obtained a court injunction blocking bidders from taking possession of 77 lease parcels in wild areas and around Utah's national parks. Months later, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar permanently withdrew the parcels from development.
That lawsuit has since turned into a challenge of six land-use plans for drilling in Utah that were developed by the BLM under President George W. Bush. A ruling is expected this fall from U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball in Salt Lake City.
Environmentalist say the BLM in Utah is trying to pull a fast one again, on the San Rafael Swell.