Fracking in Utah’s Most Remote and Pristine Red Rock Desert?

by Jana Richman (published in the Examiner November 22, 2013

During the week of November 7, 2013, employees from a company with offices in Pennsylvania and Colorado, Front Runner Seismic, showed up in the small town of Escalante, Utah, (pop. 800), and quietly went about their business, knocking on doors, offering contracts of various sorts—mineral leases, property access—ready for signature.

As the men made their rounds, the details slowly began to surface. They represent energy developer James K. Munn from Denver, Colorado. He’s after oil, and he believes there’s some to be had under Escalante’s small town. When specifically asked about fracking as a method of extracting oil, Munn’s representative, Patrick Barnes, gave this simultaneously ambivalent and clear answer: “We are not ruling it out.”

Escalante, Utah, is bordered on three sides by Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the largest monument in the country: 1.9 million acres of sandstone wilderness. It is bordered on the fourth side by the Aquarius Plateau, which drains to the Escalante River. The only way in or out of town on paved roads is Highway 12 east through the Monument or west past Bryce Canyon National Park. Some of the property Munn has targeted borders Pine Creek and the Escalante River, which runs through town. The Escalante is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the West.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has 750,000 annual visitors from around the world. The tiny town of Escalante is located in the heart of the monument, 50 miles from Bryce National Park, 70 miles from Capital Reef National Park, 120 miles from Zion National Park and 200 miles from Grand Canyon National Park. It is 120 miles from the nearest Interstate. Ever visited this area?

Escalante, settled by Mormons in 1875, has been politically and culturally divided since President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. It is a community reliant on agriculture and tourism. Water is scarce and sacred.

What we know:
Front Runner Seismic representatives claim testing will take place on private and public property before Christmas. They say they will test along roadway right-of-ways using vibration trucks in the small town lined with historic brick “pioneer” homes built with fragile sandstone foundations.

Neither Front Runner nor James K. Munn have applied for the permit required from the Utah State Office of Oil, Gas, and Mining to legally begin this work.

Neither Front Runner nor James K. Munn have an agreement with Escalante City to conduct testing. Nor have they contacted the Utah Dept of Transportation or Garfield County to the best of our knowledge.

Such testing can damage not only structures, but also private wells, and water and sewage lines.

What we don’t know:
Who owns the mineral rights under the property targeted by Munn. Many landowners in Utah do not own mineral rights under their property. Some are held privately, others are held by state or federal government entities.

How Munn expects to get water. We have been told by his representative they will either use brine water from drilling or haul water in. Neither of those two options seems logical in this remote and dry location, with Scenic Byway 12 being the only possible truck transportation route.

How Munn expects to move the resource out of the town of Escalante.

How or if Munn plans to protect our fragile water aquifers.

The only potential winner in Escalante’s oil and gas exploration is the developer, James K. Munn from Denver, Colorado