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For years, James K. Munn has had a hunch that oil might be pooled under the remote southern Utah town of Escalante, an agricultural spot rich in history and scenery.
The petroleum geologist, who explored this area for its hydrocarbon potential back in the 1950s, spends more time swinging clubs on Denver's golf links than probing Western oil patches. But now in his mid-80s, Munn is intent on seeing whether his suspicions about Escalante are right.
Through an intermediary, a geophysical company named Front Runner Seismic, Inc., Munn has spent the past month seeking permission from landowners to conduct seismic testing over a 17-square-mile swath of the Escalante Valley, an area surrounded by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The project has generated both excitement and dread in this community that once thrived on livestock, but increasingly relies on outdoor tourism associated with the region's plateaus and canyons.
Oil production would be welcomed by many in Garfield County, whose leaders and native residents are still seething about the creation of the nation's largest national monument in 1996. That move foreclosed the chance of developing massive coal reserves under the nearby Kaiparowits Plateau.
But the prospect of "vibe trucks" in Escalante, along with the drill rigs, industrial traffic and pipelines that could come later, has raised serious concerns for other residents, particularly newcomers who came here for the region's scenery and outdoor opportunities.
"Everyone assumes there will be jobs if there is development. The oil field outside of town only provides three jobs. What are we sacrificing for a couple jobs?" said resident Mark Austin, referring to the small Upper Valley oil field eight miles west of town straddling the monument and Dixie National Forest.
"If they find oil, is that a compatible development with the dominant part of the economy, which is tourism? That's a real can of worms," said Austin, a pioneer in Garfield County tourism for the past two decades. "If they are going to allow this, the city has got to take necessary precautions to protect their own assets as well as those of property owners."
Seismic testing is an initial step before any new drilling would occur. The goal is to determine whether oil and gas are present, then whether they can be extracted economically. Past experience around Escalante has not been promising, according to William Dressel, the president of Front Runner.
Exploratory drilling in the early 1960s came up dry, Dressel said in a phone interview from his Pennsylvania office. Munn has acquired two-dimensional imagery from ConocoPhillips, which had mapped the area in the 1970s. Technology is now available to reprocess this old data and obtain new 3-D imagery.
"2-D is like an X-ray and 3-D is like an MRI," Dressel said. "We'll take that old data and enhance it. We will tie all this data together. That's why we think we are the best suited to develop this area."
He plans to deploy three vibroseis machines, heavy truck-mounted equipment that bounces seismic waves through the ground. The waves are detected by geophones. Geologists interpret how the waves reflect off rock layers to determine whether these subterranean formations are amenable to harboring oil and gas.
Front Runner had proposed running the equipment right down Escalante's network of streets, but decided last week to adjust plans in response to public push back.
Some locals feared seismic testing could threaten the foundations of the town's century-old structures, which pioneers built from locally produced adobe, sandstone and lumber, and later low-fired brick. The town's core has recently been designated as the Escalante Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
"We are going to do our homework diligently to make sure the town is protected," Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor said.
Residents are organizing an informational meeting sometime this week.
Front Runner never planned to drill shot holes and use explosives for the Escalante project. Dressel said vibroseis machines can modulate the frequency and intensity of ground vibrations to avoid putting buried infrastructure at risk. But last week he decided to go an extra step and keep vibe trucks out of town altogether by gathering data remotely using wireless technology.
"It gives us partial imagery. We are sacrificing some science. We'll never drill wells inside the town so the data is not that important," Dressel said. "We are making efforts to meet in the middle instead of getting into a fight. The last thing we want to do is give anyone a black eye. We owe it to the property owners who are supporting us."
An energy company recently conducted seismic testing through the town of Fountain Green with no damage, according to Clint Dworshak, a compliance manager with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
Front Runner last month submitted a seismic application with the hope of beginning operations in early December. However, division officials said it was unlikely a permit would be issued before year's end.
Any permit would require careful control and monitoring of the shock waves.
"They can put sensors on the porches and the houses," Dworshak said, "to ensure the frequency is within the standards that are below what would cause damage."
Escalante's zoning ordinance, meanwhile, lists vibrations among the "dangerous and objectionable elements" that may be prohibited within town limits.
Munn already holds agreements with several property owners, including the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, to lease the minerals under their land or conduct seismic testing. Dressel said the majority of property owners his company has contacted are open to energy development.
The proposed agreements entitle Munn and his associates to access to the land and to bring in the equipment necessary to extract and transport any hydrocarbons they locate.
But that may not happen.
"The fact that Mr. Munn wants to spend money doing imagery tests rather than poking a hole in the ground [shows] he is taking a responsible stance. This is a mom-and-pop guy who wants to see something happen before the end of his days," Dressel said.
"This is one of those long shots in the dark. [Munn] told me, 'I am curious.' Can't an old man be curious?"