Early last month, employees from Front Runner Seismic, a Pennsylvania company, showed up in my small town of Escalante, Utah, population 800. They quietly went about their business, knocking on doors and offering various contracts for mineral leases and access to private property. The men told residents they represented Denver energy developer James K. Munn. He’s after oil, and he believes there’s some to be had underneath our small town, located in the heart — though not actually within the boundaries — of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. My husband and I moved to Escalante five years ago to live in this desert we’d come to know and love. Both native Utahns, we had independently found solace here over the years. We still do.
When residents asked the men about fracking, Munn’s representative gave this answer: We are not ruling it out. In conversations with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining, the agency confirmed that the company would certainly not rule out fracking, because this controversial extraction method has become routine: Today, 95 percent of all wells in Utah are fracked.
The impacts of fracking are indisputable. Anyone driving through Colorado, Wyoming or New Mexico can witness them. Air becomes foul; there is less water for drinking, gardens, fruit trees and agriculture, and what remains is often no longer usable. Property values plummet, trapping people in financial ruin.
The process begins with seismic testing, which is scheduled to begin shortly along town roads that lie in front of homes. However, neither Munn nor his representatives have filed the necessary permits with Utah’s oil and gas agency, permits that are required by law before seismic testing can be conducted. Some types of seismic testing are more likely than others to damage wells, water lines, sewer lines and building foundations, but none are considered benign. If you ask them directly, Munn’s representatives will tell you about these details; but if you don’t, they see no need to mention it.
You might wonder why a tiny, remote town would attract the purveyors of such devastation, especially a town that defends its agricultural future with passion, a town that relies on the tourist dollars spent every year by the approximately 750,000 visitors to the monument, a town in which water is both scarce and sacred.
The answer is complicated. Many landowners here do not own the mineral rights under their property. Some subsurface rights are held privately, others by state or federal entities, but the bottom line is this: If Munn secures the mineral rights under my property, I have no legal right to keep him from drilling and fracking on my land. Because I don’t own the mineral rights, I lack the power to say no. And any financial compensation that’s offered will come nowhere near the financial loss I’ll face.
Even if I were lucky enough to own my mineral rights, it is still doubtful that the proposed compensation would exceed my loss. Finance companies are now quietly refusing to offer mortgages for properties that have oil or gas leases on them, and homeowner insurance policies will not cover damage from seismic testing or energy exploration. Such is the legal system we’ve constructed for the extraction industry in our country. So James K. Munn has every legal right to tear apart my garden, strip my home of its value, empty my bank accounts into his, and essentially raze my life.
What I took for granted in Escalante, and what every visitor to the monument seeks — quiet nights, pure air and the simple beauty of watching the sunrise over the Escalante River gorge — is now threatened. In its place is the promise of truck traffic, lights, noise, storage tanks and noxious fumes.
I moved to Escalante to escape that kind of thing. I fled from unrestrained growth in my hometown of Tooele, Utah, and the unbreathable air in Salt Lake City. This time, however, there will be no escape. Studies show that homes within 2.5 miles of drilling operations — even conventional, non-fracking operations — drop in value between 12 and 24 percent. If an oil well is visible, the devaluation rises.
In Escalante, we tend to fight a lot — we’ve been disagreeing with each other since long before the monument was designated in 1996. But I would happily return to quibbling with my neighbors over streetlights, all-terrain vehicle routes and grazing rights. We now face a larger threat, because drilling and mining is unlikely to benefit any of us who want to stay here. It also benefits none of the owners of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — and they include every U.S. citizen — or the staggering beauty that is the hallmark of this extraordinary landscape. The only person who benefits from our loss is James K. Munn. At what point do we engage our humanity and band together to stop a scourge that could devour every small town across the country?
Jana Richman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Escalante, Utah.