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Prodded by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, state-lands managers reached an agreement Friday with Anadarko Petroleum that delays oil exploration in roadless parts of the Book Cliffs, a move that relieved sportsmen's groups that hoped this land would be set aside for conservation.
A proposed contract, negotiated in private, still gives the global energy company drilling rights to the northern parts of a 96,000-acre block of state land, but a decision on the sensitive portion, a hunting mecca called Bogart Canyon, has been pushed back until 2016.
"By being willing to listen and respond to stakeholder concerns, Anadarko is once again demonstrating it is a responsible corporate citizen and one of the more socially conscious energy producers in the nation," said Gov. Gary Herbert, whose office helped broker the 27-month delay in the face of a public outcry against the Book Cliffs deal.
The deal is among the largest ever negotiated by Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), an independent agency that manages 3.4 million acres for the benefit of schools. It is also among the most controversial, drawing protests from Republican political leaders who ordinarily champion energy development. Herbert decried the lack of a public process to support a decision with such far-reaching consequences, while Rep. Rob Bishop had argued SITLA was pawning an asset that could serve as valuable "currency" to settle Utah's long-standing public lands battles.
The two teamed up last week to ask the Utah Board of Education to endorse a delay. The board soundly rejected the request after SITLA officials said such a move could devalue the deal they were still negotiating with Anadarko.
Friday's agreement signals an about-face, but SITLA affirmed it was in line with its mandate to maximize revenue off state land.
"We feel this agreement is advantageous to Utah's public schools and the state, and retains SITLA's commitment with Anadarko," said SITLA board chairman Steve Ostler in a press statement. His board will consider amending the proposed Anadarko contract at its Sept. 26 meeting.
Friday's development could dampen the harsh criticism and scrutiny SITLA has weathered since word of the Anadarko deal got out last month. But some critics want assurances a final decision won't be debated in secret.
"It's a step in the right direction, but they have a ways to go," said Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson. "I'm still concerned about the process and I highly encourage us as a state to provide a more open and transparent process."
But others were more unequivocal in their support of SITLA's agreement to delay leasing Bogart Canyon.
"Providing time to work out a broader lands initiative through a more inclusive and balanced approach is a win-win for all Utahns, especially Utah's school children," Bishop said in a press statement.
Friday's reprieve could put the 18,000 roadless acres in northern Grand County in play for future land exchanges, much to the delight of Utah sportsmen who cherish the Books as one of Utah's last places to stalk big game in remote, scenic, pristine terrain.
"We appreciate the flexibility on the part of everyone involved and we are excited we can continue to engage on the broader collaborative efforts," said Trout Unlimited's Casey Snider, who has led efforts to encourage SITLA to trade its roadless Book Cliffs holdings for federal lands elsewhere. "They took our concerns to heart and gave us what we asked."
The proposed contract divides the lease area into two prospects, the northern half called Three Pines and the South Books, which is further divided into the One Eye Canyon and Bogart Canyon units.
Exploration is to come in stages from north to south, beginning as early as this fall on Three Pines, an area that has been under lease for years with various companies and has already been drilled. Anarkdo is to recomplete an old well here by June 1, 2014, and drill two more over the following year.
The deal requires Anadarko to commence a 3D seismic survey on One Eye Canyon by July 1, 2015, and sink a test well within a year of that deadline. The company would pay the state a $2-per-acre annual rent, a per-acre bonus, plus $100,000 for the option to lease the South Books, and a 17 percent royalty on the value of any oil and gas produced.