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Nick Cunningham

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Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Don’t Count On A Utah Shale Boom

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On Monday, President Trump announced his plan to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, while also cutting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half, a move that could open up Utah to more oil and gas drilling.

In the waning hours of Barack Obama’s tenure as President, he signed an order using the Antiquities Act to protect millions of acres in Bears Ears. President Trump is now trying to undo that move, which will be the first time a president has reduced such a large portion of national monument territory since the 1960s.

Presidents tend to add land into protection to burnish their legacy – George W. Bush created a massive reserve in the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii in his second term, a Marine National Monument that was expanded under the Obama administration. There are not a ton of examples in which Presidents shrink national monuments, and even when control of the White House changes parties, the decisions to protect lands from prior administrations is generally respected. But, needless to say, the Trump administration is unlike any other.

Slashing the size of the national monuments will mean opening up a lot more territory for potential oil and gas exploration.

More than 90 percent of the Bears Ears territory is thought to overlap with oil, gas and coal reserves, according to Bloomberg. Last year, EOG Resources, a prominent shale producer that is well-known in other shale basins, such as the Permian, is one of the few companies chomping at the bit in Utah. Last year, the shale driller won an approval from the state to explore on land near Bears Ears. A handful of other companies have lined up the rights to exploration.

Nevertheless, it’s not as if Utah will resemble West Texas anytime soon (or ever). Utah is remote, and the lack of oil and gas infrastructure would make large-scale production costly. Plus, some oil companies have been there before. There are some old oil and gas wells within the Bears Ears monument, wells that were drilled years ago but were abandoned. “Historically, in say the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there was some drilling out in this area, but nothing significant was found,” John Rogers, Associate Director of Oil & Gas at the Utah Division of Natural Resources, told Inside Energy in September. “So all the wells out there have been plugged and abandoned…Now, on the fringe, up to the north, there are some people leasing. Within the monument, nothing.”

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He said that drilling in Bears Ears is simply not that attractive. “When oil was up above $100 per barrel, nobody was racing out here to do anything. Everything was in the northern part of Utah, the Uinta Basin,” Rogers told Inside Energy. “Now with oil down to $45, $50 per barrel, there’s even less incentive. If they shrink the size of the monument or alter it in some way, I don’t see anyone rushing in there because they’ve had decades to do it and they’ve done nothing.”

With that said, the industry is still interested in taking a look. Energy companies have sent requests to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to include more than 100,000 acres of land within or near Bears Ears in upcoming lease sales. Those requests inform BLM how to design their oil and gas leasing. That doesn’t meant they will follow through on drilling, but it does mean they are at least somewhat interested in exploration.

The move by President Trump will vastly cut protected territory in Bears Ears, potentially opening up much more land for oil and gas development. But, despite the headlines, that won’t happen anytime soon.

Environmental groups and Native Americans have already promised to sue to stop Trump’s rollback of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The question hinges on the use of the Antiquities Act, which grants the executive branch the right to put land under protection as a national monument, but the courts will need to decide whether the Act also gives Presidents the right to undo national monuments. The issue could eventually reach as high as the Supreme Court. The legal fight, which could drag on for a while, will prevent any immediate action.

Utah probably won’t be home to the next shale boom anytime soon.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Bill Simpson on December 04 2017 said:
    Two reasons it probably won't happen. There probably isn't enough oil in the shale to cover the infrastructure cost. And other shale plays, like in Western Canada, would be better investments if the price heads back up, and stays there. So would drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is still a lot of conventional oil, but isn't profitable for new projects at today's low oil prices.
    Someday it may be exploited, but not anytime soon.
  • Meremortal on December 05 2017 said:
    "There are not a ton of examples in which Presidents shrink national monuments,..."

    It's been done 18 times.

    Sovereign states are capable of making their own choices about their lands, without the "help" of the federal government.

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