"There isn't a single producing well in Washington County and this is not the place to start," said Cory MacNulty, a program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
"They say there won't be an impact from leasing, but there could be from development," MacNulty said. "The BLM has a tendency to work with air quality and viewshed at the permit stage for drilling. From our perspective, that's way too late, because once you lease there is an expectation you will be able to develop."
Under BLM's 1999 management plan for its St. George office, lands outside Zion are open for leasing. Federal law requires the agency to consider leasing such lands when they are "nominated" by industry. Documents show that in 2014, a firm known as Utah Exploration and Drilling LLC asked the agency to offer up numerous parcels totaling 16,000 acres in Washington County.
BLM spokesman Ryan Sutherland said after the company showed interest for "multiple years," the agency launched an environmental assessment and sought public input on offering the leases.
The National Park Service has yet to weigh in with its views on the BLM's moves.
Some nearby state trust sections of land are under lease, to Castle Resources LLC, based in Fort Worth, Texas.
The last federal lease issued in Washington County was in 2005 and it terminated five years later. In more recent years, nine other Washington County parcels have been nominated, but BLM deferred decisions whether to issue leases.
A total of 23 leases are to be sold June 15. All remain under review and the public has until Feb. 10 to submit comment. BLM's next auction, to be held online Feb. 21, features just four parcels covering 4,174 acres in San Juan County.
Activists noted that industry is sitting on 2 million acres off undeveloped leases and questioned why BLM would issue fresh ones in such a sensitive place, within lands proposed for wilderness, when drilling is at a 30-year low, thanks to persistent low energy prices.
"This is a completely inappropriate location for oil and gas leasing and development," said Steve Masefield, former chairman of the Virgin Planning and Zoning Commission. "Drilling on these leases would not only degrade the scenic vistas enjoyed by visitors driving to Zion, nearby rural neighborhoods would be devastated by industrial smells, noise, lighting and traffic. Our water – and the water used by communities downstream – could be polluted."
BLM would better serve the public by reserving this area for recreation, MacNulty argued.
"There is a lot of opportunity along this corridor. If we are going to be developing, why aren't we accommodating people," she said. "We need to consider the experience of people who want to camp."
Landon Newell, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, called BLM's proposal "an entirely ill-conceived plan that should be rejected,"
"This lease-first, think-later approach to oil and gas leasing has been rejected time and time again," said Newell. "It's hard to understand what would compel BLM to propose offering these parcels but whatever their motivation, BLM should rethink its proposal which threatens Utah's most popular national park."
Utah Exploration and Drilling, registered in St. George, does not appear in Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's database, suggesting it may lack the means to develop these parcels.
"This is likely a speculative acquisition to pad the company's profile/status with the hope of selling to a bigger player in the future," said Newell.
About 50 shallow wells, between 600 and 1,500 feet deep, were drilled on these parcels as far back as the 1930s, yielding either dry holes or nominal amounts.
"That drilling took place 50 to 80 years ago and was a complete failure," said Newell, citing state production data. "More importantly, unsuccessful past drilling does not justify BLM's decision to offer new leases on the doorstep of Utah's most popular member of the 'Mighty Five.' "
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.