Thousands of art lovers protest proposed oil drilling near Spiral Jetty

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

Article Last Updated: 02/22/2008 12:51:01 PM MST


< Showing itself for the first time in years, the "Spiral Jetty," uncoils into the Great Salt Lake displaying the world famous creation by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)





Artists outraged at the possibility of oil drilling near the Spiral Jetty have inundated state agencies with e-mail protests. Now they have a new advocate: the Utah Department of Community and Culture.
The department is working closely with the Department of Natural Resources, which is now reviewing an application from a Canadian company to set up drilling barges and oil rigs in the Great Salt Lake's Little Valley Harbor, five miles southwest of Rozel Point and the Spiral Jetty.
"This is very important," said Palmer DePaulis, Community and Culture executive director and a former mayor of Salt Lake City. "We want to represent the [art community's] interests so everyone's voice can be heard."
State agencies have received more than 3,500 letters and e-mails from artists and conservationists around the world who thought the threat to Robert Smithson's massive earthworks piece was out of harm's way under a year-old settlement.
In May 2006, conservation groups including Western Resource Advocates, the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, Friends of Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake Audubon reached a settlement with the state that pulled back oil and gas leases in the northwest arm of the lake. The agreement covered 116,000 acres, but left out 55,000 acres.
But it turns out that Pearl Montana Exploration and Production LTD of Calgary, Alberta, holds three 2003 leases on the exempt acres. On Jan. 11, the company submitted to Oil, Gas and Mining an application to drill two wells from barges anchored in the lake.
Natural Resources executive director Mike Styler said Thursday that review of the drilling application would include examining the company's plans for spill control, blowout prevention and other safeguards.
DePaulis said his agency got involved because thousands of the letters of opposition were coming to the state museums and art division. The move to cooperate with DNR was a mutual effort between the two agencies, he said.
Smithson's 1,500-foot-long basalt and soil earthworks sculpture that coils in the Great Salt Lake is an artwork of global significance. Drilling in the area occurred before and after Smithson finished his work in 1970.
The state must honor mineral rights. But leases can be canceled if the operator violates the lease terms, or if the state decides there is "imminent significant irreversible threat to the public trust" guaranteed in the Utah Constitution.