Under the stratified sedimentary sandstone of Utah’s Sand Flats Recreation Area, where the Slickrock mountain-bike trail dips and weaves, heat, pressure, and time have cooked the remains of dinosaur bones and ancient flora into a layer of hydrocarbons. Gas reserves, energy developers say, are there somewhere, buried deep beneath Moab’s red rock. The landscape holds both a potential for extraction and a guarantee of radness—and the two are coming to a head as surely as they are elsewhere in red-rock Utah, in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments.
This summer, two parcels of land within Sand Flats could be leased for drilling, opening up 5,000 acres for oil and gas exploration. The parcels were nominated through what the Bureau of Land Management calls expressions of interest, as part of President Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda. Public comment opens February 20 on whether the leases should be part of a statewide oil- and gas-lease sale in June. What’s currently a high-value recreation zone could be used for low-value drilling. The BLM says the Sand Flats parcel is exploratory and that the potential for oil and gas is unknown. The parties who nominated the parcels are anonymous, and the city and county governments have come out against the leases.
Moab, more than almost any other small western town, has made a successful transition from extraction to recreation. What was once called the uranium capital of the world is now a busy gateway to national parks and cathedral canyons, with more than 160,000 visitors a year. The area has proved that rural towns can have a thriving tourism economy by prioritizing the best use of the landscape. (Some might say Utah’s tourism industry is thriving a little too much, but crowds or no, Moab is an example that other places are trying to emulate.)
Extraction and recreation can live side by side, but it takes an exceedingly careful balance, and Sand Flats isn’t a good spot for it. “We know oil and gas are part of the makeup of our economy,” Moab mayor Emily Niehaus told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We have done a good job of saying where recreation goes and where extraction goes. My question is: Are the recreation areas going to be negatively impacted?”
Sand Flats is a “no surface occupancy” area, which means that future leaseholders would have to drill directionally, opening the reserves through horizontal fracking. The area also sits atop the Glen Canyon Aquifer, which provides more than half of Moab’s potable water. Local politician Bob O’Brien, who serves on the Canyonlands Watershed Council board, says he’s worried about contamination threats from drilling and fracking, as are area outfitters.
“In the era of climate change, there’s economic motivation to keep the land in its natural state,” says Ashley Korenblat, founder of Western Spirit bike trips and director of Public Land Solutions, a Moab-based nonprofit. She’s drafted a letter to interior secretary David Bernhardt outlining the long-term damage drilling would do to the recreation economy for likely short-term gains.
Korenblat says that similar parcels of nearby state land were recently leased for a resort, instead of for drilling. “If the state people, who are the loosest about regulation, say it’s not good for drilling, then it must be really bad,” she says. She calls the energy-dominance principle behind leases absurd. Currently, oil and gas prices are low, providing minimal economic incentive to drill.
But Trump’s Executive Order 13783, issued in March of 2017, directs government agencies, including the BLM, to remove regulatory obstacles to energy development. It essentially gives oil and gas companies a smooth runway to block off public land now and then drill it when the market turns.
“Maybe the leases are low-potential now but will be developable at some point with technology, so they’re trying to lease every nook and cranny,” Korenblat says. “Plus, if you own a bunch of leases, they show as assets on your balance sheet, which allows you to buy more leases. It’s just like venture capital, in that it only needs a little bit to be profitable.”
But even venture capitalists—not historically environmentally friendly—are opposed. A group of institutional investors controlling $113 billion in assets released a letter warning 58 companies, including Chevron and ExxonMobil, that taking advantage of the Trump rollbacks could put them “at significant risk of public backlash and stranded assets, should these actions be legally challenged or protections be restored by the courts or by future administrations.”
So let’s make some better long-term choices. We currently live in a carbon-heavy economy. Even as we transition away from that, we’re not going to stop cold turkey. The question is how we do that wisely, while ruining the fewest places possible. It’s naive to think we’re not drilling some places—but we don’t have to drill all the places. “Do we really need to burn the Picassos to heat the house for an hour?” Korenblat asks.
Korenblat says that we’ve historically thought of extraction as the highest value of land use, because for a long time, pulling things out of the land was indeed the best way to make a living. But that last-century way of looking at value is no longer true in recreation hubs like Moab anymore. If we can keep the derricks out of Sand Flats and off the Slickrock Trail, it will be another example of how we can create more value by leaving landscapes alone.