Controversy, confusion over energy exploration in Bears Ears area
by Bill Boyle, San Juan Record Editor
The possibility of energy exploration activities within the prior boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument is becoming a national issue, even while many local residents question if there are actual on-the-ground realities to support the controversy.
On December 4, President Donald Trump cut nearly two million acres out of two national monuments, including Bears Ears in San Juan County and the Grand Staircase Escalante in adjacent Garfield and Kane counties.
In the Bears Ears, approximately 85 percent of the original monument is not included in the new boundaries.
A recurring theme of opponents to cutting back the boundaries is that the public lands would be exploited by energy companies.
While there are significant known coal reserves in the Kaparowitz Plateau area of Grand Staircase, there are fewer reserves in the Bears Ears.
According to the Utah Geological Survey (UGS), “Bears Ears National Monument as originally designated does not hold significant energy development potential. The vast majority of energy potential resides outside the monument boundary.”
The UGS adds, “There is minimal resource development potential for uranium and potash... Additionally, there are no coal or wind resources in the area and all the oil and gas wells within the boundary are plugged and abandoned.”
Local residents generally assume that the UGS perspective accurately represents the on-the-ground reality regarding energy reserves within Bears Ears National Monument.
However, opponents to cutting the monument boundaries list energy exploitation as a possible reason the Trump Administration cut back on the monument boundaries.
The idea that “Big Oil” is behind the changes is a powerful narrative that is gaining momentum among many people.
“…handing nearly 2 million acres of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to developers, loggers, and fossil fuel companies is like spitting in God’s face.” – December 15 Letter to the Editor in the Boston Globe from The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.
Last week, the Washington Post ran a story by Juliet Eilperin regarding the White Mesa Mill, the uranium processing mill south of Blanding which is owned and operated by Energy Fuels.
The story discloses that Energy Fuels had lobbied the federal government regarding Bears Ears National Monument. The story suggests there could be a cause/effect relationship to the effort, meaning that the efforts of Energy Fuels may have been responsible for cutting back Bears Ears National Monument.
Eilperin writes, “In a May 25 letter to the Interior Department, (Energy Fuels) Chief Operating Officer Mark Chalmers wrote that the 1.35 million-acre expanse Obama created ‘could affect existing and future mill operations.’
“He later noted, ‘There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the [original boundaries] that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.’”
Energy Fuels responded to the story, stating, “Unfortunately, that article and subsequent ones have left some readers with a wildly exaggerated impression that we may have somehow played a significant role in the decision to reduce the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. That is simply not the case.”
In May, the Department of Interior announced a review of 27 monuments, all of which had been declared since 1996, that may have exceeded the Trump administration view of the appropriate use of the Antiquities Act.
The review included a request for public comment on the impact of the monument designations.
In response to the request, Energy Fuels submitted a two-page comment letter describing how the monument “might affect two of their operations located near, but outside, the monument.”
The Energy Fuels letter is one of approximately 2.8 million comments that the Department of Interior received and considered during the 65-day period.
In addition, officials for Energy Fuels had a 30-minute meeting with the Department of Interior officials in Washington DC.
Energy Fuels said the meeting was “upon advice from the local BLM office.” The meeting was organized by a lobbying firm hired by Energy Fuels.