Bluff Rallies For Bears Ears, Against Oilfield

Biggest Threat in Bluff’s History

Map showing the Bluff area, proposed oil wells, and lands SITLA hopes to acquire for industrialization.

Map showing the Bluff area, proposed oil wells, and lands SITLA hopes to acquire for industrialization.

Friends of Cedar Mesa has learned that Bluff and the surrounding cultural landscape now face the largest threat in the area’s history. A new oil well is permitted to be drilled just two miles north of Bluff on Utah State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) property. Two more oil wells are being planned on BLM land near Bluff. All three wells are proposed by EOG Resources, based out of Houston Texas. All the wells are inside the area proposed for National Monument protection by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

These first wells to be drilled near Bluff in many years are the opening salvo in a plan by SITLA to industrialize a large 15,000 acre oil field on the Bluff Bench.

Many archaeological sites, like this one, are within the area SITLA wants excluded from the Monument for industrialization.

Many archaeological sites, like this one, are within the area that SITLA wants excluded from the Monument for industrialization.

If SITLA has its way, the areas surrounding Bluff to the North and East would be left out of a Bears Ears National Monument and the Federal government would give Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands to SITLA for the oil field in exchange for other lands within the Monument. In essence, SITLA is hoping to leverage a National Monument to industrialize the Bluff area, which would threaten Bluff’s water supply, visitor-based economy, and potential to continue as the Gateway to Bears Ears. Also at risk are sensitive archaeological sites, recreation assets, world-class scenery and dark skies.

It’s important to note that a Monument designation would not stop the planned wells, which would be considered “valid existing rights” because they are occurring on existing leases (mostly from the Bush Administration era).  However, new leasing for oil and gas would not be allowed in the Monument.

Bluff Community Rallies in Support of Bears Ears Monument

The scenic Chimney Rocks area, where one well is planned, contains fragile hoodoos, similar to those found in Goblin Valley.

The scenic Chimney Rocks area, where one well is planned, contains fragile hoodoos, similar to those found in Goblin Valley.

The Bluff community has been quietly supportive of National Monument protection and was the site of the peaceful public meeting in July with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. However, this new threat has united the community to be vocal. The elected Bluff Service Area Board of Trustees voted to send a letter to Sally Jewell supporting protections for the Bluff area in a National Monument and opposing land trades to SITLA that would facilitate industrialization. Out of concerns for Bluff’s tourism economy, the Business Owners of Bluff, which represents commercial enterprises in town, also sent a letter to the Secretary supporting Monument boundaries that protect Bluff and opposing SITLA’s plans. The Bluff Water Works, which supplies culinary water to the town, sent a letter to SITLA opposing the industrialization plans that could easily contaminate Bluff’s water supply.

FCM Executive Director Josh Ewing and Bluff business leader Steve Simpson traveled to Washington D.C. last week to deliver these letters and a report with 7 reasons to protect the Gateway to Bears Ears to officials in the Obama Administration.

The big question is whether or not the Obama Administration will listen to local input in support of protecting Bluff in the Monument or if Utah’s anti-federal government political establishment will get its way, destroy the Gateway to Bears Ears, and leave fragile archaeology at risk.

What you can do

Bluff Locals: We encourage Bluff residents to write to Secretary Sally Jewell a personal, heartfelt, hand-signed letter explaining why it’s so important that she and President Obama listen to local input and include the Bluff area in the Bears Ears National Monument. Because time is so short for this critical decision to be made, we’ll need to hand deliver these letters. So, if you’re willing, please write your letter and drop it off at the FCM office (300 East Main Street in Bluff) by Friday, November 11th. Make sure to include your Bluff address on the letter.

Everyone else:

  • Make sure you’ve signed the petition in support of the Bears Ears National Monument.
  • Consider commenting to the BLM about the planned oil wells near Bluff. Comments are due November 11th. You can read some detail about the project and make comments here.

Sending comments to the BLM

The two planned wells on BLM land on the Bluff Bench are in the scoping phase of developing an Environmental Assessment (EA). The company EOG Resources has requested two Applications for a Permit to Drill (APD) on land that was leased years ago. It is important to comment during the scoping phase because you can help identify issues to be addressed in the draft EA. When you comment, here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

  • It’s not helpful to just tell the BLM not to drill here. Although we would have fought these leases had our organization existed back in 2006 when they were issued, they are legitimate leases.
  • Do raise concerns you have about well locations and impacts to be considered. It’s highly likely these wells could have impacts on cultural resources (creating and expanding roads), Bluff’s water supply (both would drill through the town’s aquifer), unique geological hoodoos, scenic values (both wells are in beautiful places used locally for recreation), and night sky impacts.
  • Given these issues, the BLM should take utmost care to pick well locations very carefully and require the operator to adhere to strict stipulations to protect cultural resources, air and water quality, and night skies.

Author: Josh Ewing

As Executive Director for Friends of Cedar Mesa, Josh advances stewardship through education, advocacy, and organizing.

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