Utah's majestic landscapes threatened by dirty fuels industry

An oil pad and gas tanks in front of Utah's La Sal mountains.
© Sierra Club

By Deb Walters and Marc Thomas, Sierra Club Utah volunteers.

The region around Moab, Utah is world famous for its amazing redrock sandstone landscapes, complete with towering hoodoos and plateaus incised by canyons so deep that it's virtually impossible to estimate depths or distance. It's an area formed over hundreds of millions of years, where both the Colorado and Green rivers, and many smaller tributaries, have cut and carved like a jagged knife in cold butter.

The region is also home to an historical record like no other, where smooth cliff faces were once the canvas for ancient civilizations, some as old as 10,000 years. Pictographs and petroglyphs line the canyon walls, along with kivas (religious ceremonial rooms), mud huts, and granaries.

Of course no one can discuss the Moab region without expounding on world-class hiking and mountain biking opportunities and pretty much anything a person with a craving for the outdoors could desire. This part of Utah, nearly all of it owned by you and me in the form of federal public lands, has truly become an outdoor recreation mecca, which has transformed the region's economy from the ruin left by the boom and bust uranium industry that left town 50 years ago. We can honestly say that it is the amazing landscapes, outdoor opportunities and an unbelievable quality of life that drew us to Moab for our retirement years.

Unfortunately, we are now spending a significant portion of our "golden years" fighting to protect this landscape from being transformed again, only this time into an industrial zone. Our love of this landscape isn't shared by all, particularly by some of our local elected officials or the Governor of Utah. Instead, where we see pristine redrock plateaus with the 11,000-foot snow-capped peaks in the background, they see pump jacks and oil wells.

Where we see people enjoying warm spring afternoons enjoying the outdoors on their bicycles, they see heavy semi-tractor/trailers hauling 12-inch steel pipe for more natural gas pipelines. Where we see majestic canyons so wide and deep that the magnificent Colorado River appears to be no more than a small ribbon of water, they see potash mines and settling ponds.

Within the last few years, we've seen a dramatic rise in the number of oil and gas wells in the region immediately north and west Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. In fact, a current oil well operating less than a mile from the entrance to Canyonlands is now the largest producing oil well in the lower 48 states.

We are assured by the local Bureau of Land Management office that many more wells are sure to come, considering that we are sitting right on top of the Paradox Basin, an area that stretches across nearly half of Grand and San Juan counties. We often say that this beautiful and spectacular unspoiled environment is "paradoxically" also rich in petroleum, tar sands, potash, and uranium. In other words, it is in a head on collision course with the extractive industries.

About an hour north of Moab lays the expansive Tavaputz Plateau, a large region that straddles the Utah/Colorado border and encompasses millions of acres of public lands from 8,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. This is one of wildest landscapes found anywhere in the U.S. Wildlife such as elk, moose, deer and mountain lions pervade, which is why it's often referred to as the "Serengeti of the U.S."

But again, this portion of eastern Utah is rich in carbon-intensive dirty fuels. The oil and gas industries -- and now mining companies looking to exploit the dirtiest of dirty energy, tar sands and oil shale -- are riding a torrent of exploration and speculation. It is why our county commissioners are now pushing for permits and funding to build what we call the "Hydrocarbon Highway."

The western and southern perimeters of the Tavaputz abruptly drop off to the valley floor in stark erosional cliffs. Two-track gravel dirt roads and four-wheel drives are currently the only way to access the area, much to the dismay of industry and county commissioners who want an easier path for the transport of oil and gas to Interstate 70 and rail hubs to the south. A study is in the works to assess the cost of building a major highway. This extreme proposal created significant controversy back in the 1980s, then called the "Book Cliffs Highway," resulting in several county commissioners losing in the next election.

We and many of our friends are heavily involved in our local Sierra Club chapter, and other local conservation groups. We have vowed to fight to stop the industrialization of Moab, Utah. We recognize the local economic boost that can come from such exploits, at least temporarily. But Moab has also seen this before with the uranium boom and bust in the middle of the 20th century.

U.S. taxpayers are still paying the cost, in hundreds of millions of dollars, to remove a massive radio-active tailings pile off the banks of the Colorado River just north of town. To go down that same road again, after Moab has re-branded itself as a world-class destination, is insanity at best. There is an old saying: "To err is the sign of a human. To repeat those errors is the sign of a fool."

We are not anti-extractive industries. But there are some places that are simply too special to drill. The world class redrock sandstone landscapes of Moab are like no other. The Greater Canyonlands should be permanently protected as a national monument, not destroyed by dirty fuels.

Utah's majestic landscapes threatened by dirty fuels industry
Moab, Utah, is known for its amazing recreation opportunities. Unfortunately it's now becoming known for oil, gas, and coal as well.

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