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The Bureau of Land Management is giving the public another month to weigh in on a controversial proposal to issue oil and gas leases west of Zion Canyon after the National Park Service raised concerns about potential drilling on Zion National Park's periphery.
No federal land is under lease in Washington County and critics fear that selling leases would open the door to drilling on the doorstep of one of the nation's most visited parks and the crown jewel of Utah's "Mighty Five."
Worries have surfaced in nearby communities of Springdale, Rockville and Virgin over the potential impact of industrial development on a vibrant tourism economy. The Washington County Commission, ordinarily a pro-development body, passed a resolution Tuesday opposing drilling near the park, partly out of wariness over groundwater.
Meanwhile, the St. George businessman seeking the leases says he actually wants to tap the land for water, not oil.
For its part, Park Service staff need additional time to evaluate possible impacts to air quality, soundscapes, water, night skies, visitor experience, sensitive species and other resources national parks are charged with protecting, according to park spokesman John Marciano.
The BLM's St. George field office will now accept comments on its draft environmental assessment until March 9.
The three federal parcels under study total 4,730 acres. Two of them straddle the Kolob Terraces Road just north of Virgin.
The area was heavily drilled decades ago, thanks to surface seeps that ooze crude, but few holes ever produced paying quantities of oil. Today, Zion visitors travel the Kolob road to access the park's northern highlands and Kolob Reservoir, and often camp along it when Zion Canyon's crowded campgrounds are full.
The company that nominated the parcels for auction, Utah Drilling and Exploration LLC, claims its real interest lies with the land's groundwater. St. George businessman and company principal Jeff Reber said securing the oil and gas leases is necessary for protecting the company's investment should it strike hydrocarbons while drilling for water.
Years ago, Reber said, he asked the BLM to lease these parcels and several others in Washington County with his father, the late Spencer Reber. The Chevron exploration geologist retired to St. George in the 1980s and taught geology to Dixie State College students.
"Now every one is throwing up hysterical propaganda about oil rigs going up," Reber said.
"Our intent is not to throw up a bunch of wells … We are not going to infringe on the national park, and on the rights of bicyclists riding up Kolob."
Utah Drilling and Exploration is in the business of locating water for individuals who need it, according to Reber. He said his company owns water rights in partnership with a Texas firm, Canyon Resources, which holds oil and gas leases on several Utah trust sections nearby.
But Reber's statements have conservationists scratching their heads since an oil and gas lease, which can be costly to obtain and maintain, is not necessary for developing a water right.
Regardless of his intentions, there is no guarantee Utah Drilling and Exploration would be the successful bidder should the BLM issue these leases or that he wouldn't sell them to energy developers later on should the leases prove valuable, according to Landon Newell, a staff lawyer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"He is either trying to confuse the issue by saying he doesn't pose a threat of development," Newell said, "or he doesn't understand the legal rights that come with a federal oil and gas lease."
Leases obligate the BLM to accommodate drilling, although development would require another round of environmental analysis and requirements to protect other resources.
In their resolution, Washington County commissioners questioned whether allowing oil and gas development along scenic highways was the best use of the region's resources. They also noted that one of the leases under consideration is located near a proposed water reserve and several newly drilled drinking wells.
"It is in the best interest of the residents of Washington County," their resolution said, "for the BLM to make a well-informed and cautious decision regarding whether to allow the leases in our county."