But, there are sceptics. Those include the owners of 50,000 acres or so of open leased land ripe for oil exploration and development within the Great Salt Lake region, and one company in particular, Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, LTD who has allegedly filed a permit to do just that, five miles from Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. This would of course, interrupt the aesthetics and viewing line of “the lake [that] became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence.” It would be the death of poetry as we know it. You might say to yourself, “Who cares, it’s just an oil rig, and besides, it takes an eternity to travel the fifteen miles of dirt and gravel road, avoiding potholes and basalt rocks, nobody is going to make the effort!” You might be right, but yet the Spiral Jetty exists in all its beauty and is now an integral part of the lake’s Pleistocene history.
The biggest difference however, between Smithson’s jetty and oil exploration is the level of harmful intervention and disruption it causes to its surrounding environment. Not to mention its cost. I have no data on how much Smithson spent in 1970 to build the Spiral Jetty. I can only imagine that it is infinitely less than what Pearl Montana will be spending to get the “heavy oil” out of the ground. From the Friends of Great Salt Lake website:
The type of oil in the West Rozel field is commonly referred to as a “heavy oil” and the oil is tar-like in viscosity and contains a great deal of impurities, including over 12 percent sulfur. Because this oil is so thick, it is often lumped into the same category as tar sands for discussion purposes and, like tar sands, is difficult and expensive to extract from the ground. In-situ pumping of tar sands typically involves either the injection of super-heated steam or dilution of the oil through chemicals in order to facilitate pumping to the surface. With heavy oil, however, most producers attempt to extract the oil using “cold production” which calls for pumping the oil at ground temperature. John Chen, Heavy Oils, SIAM News, Vol. 39, No. 3, April 2006. Using this technique, only a small percentage of the total oil reserves, about 5 percent, is typically extracted. Amoco’s discovery well, for instance, only produced from two to five barrels of oil per hour during production testing and through 1993 a total of only 33,028 barrels of oil have been produced from the West Rozel wells.
This is certainly, hardly enough to alleviate the current oil shortage and high prices at the pump.
The Friends of Great Salt Lake, Utah Waterfowl Association, National Audubon Society, Audubon Council of Utah, including the four local societies of Bridgerland Audubon Society, Great Salt Lake Audubon Society, Red Cliffs Audubon Society and Wasatch Audubon Society, and Utah Airboat Association all agree that there are conflicts and risks associated with development of these oil and gas leases, including leaking wells, visual impacts and recreational and wildlife conflicts.
Outside of environmental impacts, the “visual impacts” are much tougher to justify as valid reasons to not drill for oil. Not everything should be sacrificed for art obviously, but neither should our future be sacrificed for oil, when there are several renewable energies to be developed. Which, potentially, might be more cost effective and energy fruitful than trying to get 33,000 plus barrels out of the ground in this one particular spot. It has also been reported that the US is already sitting on 68 million acres of leased land that may not be fully exploited for exploration and drilling – so why look for more? All things being equal, I can only imagine that there are other sites beyond the Great Salt Lake that might have resources that are much cheaper to get and refine and could have a lower impact on the environment. I’m making it sound simple, but it would behoove us to work in areas of already leased land that have a higher priority of success and output. But this still doesn’t address the aesthetics of art and the fate of the Spiral Jetty.