Utah governor opposes drilling in Book Cliffs

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert asked state officials this week to scrap a lease that would open wild lands in eastern Utah to oil and gas exploration.

The Utah Trust Lands Administration has agreed to lease up to 155 square miles of the Book Cliffs region to The Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which said it would get started in an area that already has some oil and gas wells. The company’s lease also covers undeveloped lands in a roadless section of Grand County that is home to big game.

Herbert said the trust-lands agency has a responsibility to make money for Utah schools, but he expressed displeasure in the lease. Sportsmen’s groups have raised opposition.

“We need to be careful about what we’re doing here,” Herbert said Tuesday at the Utah Capitol. “Clearly, a lot of groups are upset.”
Herbert said the agency should look to a “longer-term strategy” that could generate even more money. He didn’t elaborate on that point or take questions at a news conference.

Utah’s largest driller said it had a track record of environmental stewardship. In another Utah drilling project approved by federal managers last year and endorsed by environmental groups, Anadarko agreed to avoid drilling near the cliffs of the White River, the last major free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau. The company also agreed to buy 640 acres of private land along the river for conservation.

“We recognize the importance of developing energy resources in a manner that protects the environment and sensitive habitats,” said John Christiansen, a spokesman for the company.

Herbert has limited influence over the independent trust-lands agency, which controls square-mile sections of land awarded to Utah at statehood. Many of the parcels have been consolidated through land trades, and the Book Cliffs block is one of the agency’s largest.

The governor appoints a slate of board members from nominees submitted by state education officials.

“I’m calling on the board to reconsider,” he said.

Kim Christy, deputy director of the trust-lands administration, said the board authorized the lease Aug. 20, but it hasn’t been awarded yet.
Christy said the agency will “work with parties who have expressed concern on this transaction, including the governor’s office.”

“We respect his concerns,” Christy said. “Right now we are taking his comments under advisement.”

The agency manages a checkerboard of 3.4 million acres of trust lands remaining from a statehood grant for the benefit of the schools. It raises most of its revenue from oil and gas leasing, but also sold around $250 million worth of land for real-estate development over the past decade. The trust fund topped $1 billion in cash investments in 2010.

Anadarko said it would initially look for oil and gas deposits across fewer than 78 square miles. The trust-land agency said the company’s lease could expand to 155 square miles, overlapping wild lands.

“If the first phase doesn’t yield promising results, they could back out,” Christy said.