Worried about jetty
Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT) - Section: Daily - February 10, 2008

Standard-Examiner staff


A proposal to drill for oil in the Great Salt Lake near the Spiral Jetty has set off an international furor over the potential threat to the natural setting of the world-famous artwork. The drilling proposal is from a Canadian oil company, Pearl Montana Exploration and Production. In late 2007, the company bought oil leases in Great Salt Lake that the state sold to another company in 2006. The company is now asking the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining for a permit to drill on two fields in the lake, four miles west of the jetty on Rozel Point. The company, a former Canadian mining company that reorganized to drill for oil in 2005, specializes in heavy oil. That is very thick, high-sulfur oil, which is what has been found in wells dug in the same location of the Great Salt Lake in the past. Utah had received more than 2,120 comments on the proposal as of Friday, said John Harja, director of the Public Lands Policy Office, of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. The application to drill is dated Dec. 19, 2007. Originally, the comment period was to end Feb. 6, but Harja said the division extended it one week after complaints that the comment period was too short. "Now they've (the comments) shifted to 'Please save the jetty,' " Harja said.

Made of rocks

The Spiral Jetty is a formation several hundred feet wide made of rocks placed off the shore of the Great Salt Lake. It is at Rozel Point, which is on the west shore of the Promontory peninsula, south and west of the Golden Spike National Historic Site. The Spiral Jetty was built in 1970 by American sculptor Robert Smithson as a piece of land art. It is owned by the Dia Art Foundation of New York, which acquired it by donation from Smithson's estate in 1999. Smithson died in 1973. The jetty is a popular destination. If the lake is high, the jetty is under water, but when the lake level is low enough, as it is now, the jetty is above water, and visitors can walk out on it. Harja said the oil-drilling proposal does not threaten the jetty. The drilling will be four miles out in the lake on barges, he said. The land-based staging area will be at Little Valley Harbor, 16 miles south near Promontory Point. Access would be either by rail across the Union Pacific causeway, which crosses the point, or by road, which goes south from Promontory down the east side of the peninsula.

Economic issue?

If oil can be economically recovered, he said, the company will build an underwater pipeline to Little Valley Harbor. While the drilling barges might be visible from the shore, he said, nothing else will. "All of these things are coming from the art world," he said. "We're receiving them from Germany, and everyone says, 'Please don't hurt the jetty.' Maybe they don't understand, but somebody in the art community that doesn't understand oil drilling lit up the art world." He said the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining will make a decision sometime after the comment period ends on Feb. 13. He doesn't have a firm date on when the oil drilling would commence, but "I expect they want to go this summer." Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said the concern is not for the jetty, but for the landscape in which Smithson built it. The northeast area of the Great Salt Lake is being threatened by several industrial development proposals, she said, and oil drilling is just part of that trend. Great Salt Lake Minerals wants to extend its evaporation beds as well, she said, and the whole point of the Spiral Jetty was that it should be in an untainted, natural setting. "It's disturbing, so I think it's right for the global arts community to respond to the beginning of a trend," she said. With the continual development, "really it's just a matter of time before you get that sense of presence of development, before you hurt the 'viewshed' and sense of solitude." She said viewshed is "the ability to stand on a shoreland and have it uninterrupted by anthropomorphic structures. To go and say, 'you know, I can see for miles here.' " That quality is a significant part of the jetty, she said. "It's where it is and why it is and how it is that comes together to make this a significant artwork of the 20th century."

Drilling history

Oil drilling on the Great Salt Lake has a long and, so far, unsuccessful history. Oil seeps out of the ground naturally near Rozel Point, but it is very thick, high-sulfur oil. In 1978, Amoco drilled a number of test wells in the same part of the lake where Pearl Montana Exploration and Production also wants to drill. Amoco pumped 32,880 barrels from two test wells, but it also pumped more water than oil. That, combined with the high cost of operating offshore, caused the company to cease operations and cap the wells in 1981. Representatives from Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, which is based in Calgary, Canada, could not be reached Thursday or Friday. However, the company said in a September 2007 financial statement that it was formed in 2005 to explore for oil. It is raising money through bank loans and stock sales to buy possible oil fields in Canada and the United States. It is producing oil from some of those sites, but so far has not shown a profit.

Fueled by oil prices

The statement described the Great Salt Lake site as one of several that are "more speculative in nature but appear to potentially have very large amounts of oil in place, consistent with our strategy of gaining access to large resources." Harja said the higher price of oil is probably what is attracting the company. However, oil prices were also high in 1978 when Amoco was drilling. The 1978 Iranian Revolution, coupled with the Iran-Iraq War which began in 1980, caused the price of high-grade oil to more than double, from $14 in 1978 to $35 per barrel in 1981. Calculating for inflation, $35 in 1981 equals $88 in 2008. High-grade oil is now selling for more than $90 a barrel. A Web site for the heavy oil industry, www.heavyoil.com, reports the price of heavy oil has gone from $48 a barrel to as much as $69 in recent months. At any price, Harja said, there's no guarantee the company will do any better than Amoco. "I expect just imagining the world the way it is, the price of oil being so high ... they feel they can make a go of it."

Record Number: 11EBB5D409EC3110 / Copyright 2008 Standard-Examiner