Art, Nature, and Industry

See related article, No Art for Oil by Kriston Capps

How will the proposed drilling specifically affect Spiral Jetty?

Lynn de Freitas: This is a very intrusive kind of presence -- for the viewshed, for the landscape due to that sense of noise and light and dust -- that has far-reaching implications. To the extent that the visual impact is great or subtle, it's there, and what we don't know is what it will be like when drilling begins. What we also don't know but can probably presume is that, if this phase of exploration goes forward, there will be other leases that come forward for approval to drill.

On the Friends of Great Salt Lake (FGSL)Web site and also in Kriston Capps's article, it was noted that a couple thousand protest emails and phone calls have been received by the Utah Governor's Office. Have these inquiries reflected both environmental concerns and the concerns of the art community?

Nancy Holt: I think that the Governor's Office was quite taken back with the thousands of protests they received. Sometimes in our society art gets more isolated, and people think of the "art world" as where art happens. Spiral Jetty is an example of artists moving out and connecting again with place and site and changing aspects of nature. That is why a work like Spiral Jetty can have the potency it has. It was always meant to be part of where it is. Anything that's going to change it in any way due to man-made intervention, then of course people are going to speak out about it.

When Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty there were already oil and remnants of previous drilling efforts near the site. Do you think potential drilling will have any more of a negative impact?

NH: There were these remnants and pools of oil. When we got there, there were hundreds of dead pelicans along the shore. They had gotten stuck in the oil and covered, some of which might have been produced by the first oil rigging situation there. I think it was an omen that we should be very wary of any more drilling in the lake.

On the application for these two new tests wells, it said that there is not going to be much ecological disturbance, they're only 3,000 feet deep. When penetrating all those different layers in drilling you have to be careful, and they haven't really investigated this efficiently.

LD: Nor do they, at this point in time to my understanding, have the correct water right. They have to change the water right from agricultural to industrial, and FGSL has filed a response to this request. Water, in Utah where we have 13 inches a year of rain, is a very precious resource. Whenever we're using it to basically feed what many of us would consider a dirty industry, it really is for the wrong reasons.

How would drilling near Spiral Jetty weigh into Smithson's critique of the industrial world?

NH: I think that he took joy in seeing that the industrial age was decaying. That's a very different thing than drilling for oil in the Great Salt Lake at this day in age. I think it was the joy that things that would destroy the landscape didn't work out, and that you could see the entropic aftermath of the effort to tame nature for economic reasons. "Oh, so this didn't work out. Here are these old structures left to decay." It's a sign of the end of industrialism.

So that kind of change is very different from the change we see at Jetty today, from salt encrusting the work or from people walking over the work?

NH: I think Jetty was made to go through natural changes. That was part of the idea, that it could survive. When he was putting the rocks in, even overnight salt crystals would form on the edges of the rocks. That was expected.

After the period for public response to the potential drilling was extended, has there been any real action by the Governor's Office?

LD: There is a process afoot whereby all of the input is being shared in the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, the division in the Department of Natural Resources that will be requesting site-specific analysis from the client for the work that's going to be done. But there other considerations too. As we talk about what happens on the surface on the lake, we also have to talk about what happens on the shoreline. There is the potential for affecting sites that are a part of ancient cultures that lived around the lake.

The state is between a rock and a hard spot in that, if they say to the lease-holder, We aren't going to approve your application for a permit to drill because we're actually reconsidering whether or not we want any drilling at all, then it's possible the lease-holder could pursue legal avenues.

NH: I suggested to Jonathan Jemming of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office that, since these people have a lease to drill, if they should cancel the lease, then the government could just pay the company back their money. Financially it could be back to zero. And it's not expensive. Utah is allowing oil leases cheaply.

The land right next to my earth work Sun Tunnels in Utah suddenly had been nominated by an oil company to be auctioned for oil and gas leases -- out of the blue. For a minimum of $1.50 to $2.00 per acre annually you can get the oil and gas leases for ten years. If you don't drill a well, the oil and gas leases can revert back to the state after that time, so it's a lot of money for nothing if you're someone like me who thought of buying up the oil and gas leases. So far I think that no one bid on the land next to Sun Tunnels, but it caused a big stir.

And the different agencies aren't working together at all. They should at least tell people what to expect. There ought to be more notification. Lynn, when you called me that day and told me about oil wells in the Great Salt Lake, it was afternoon, and you said, "I think by 5:00 might be the deadline."

LD: Talk about creating a responsible process that reflects the stakeholders in the community. Had we not extended the deadline, I'm sure this would have been a done deal.

NH: I was told that, actually. I was told that this was just on the fast track, and it was essentially rubber-stamped. So without the protests, none of this would have happened.

LD: It's given them pause, the ultimate decision-makers, managing the natural resources for the state's economic livelihood, and, on the other hand, managing the natural resources in keeping with the public trust doctrine, valuing fish and wildlife habitats, water quality, aquatic beauty, recreation and public access. When they create a process that's already exclusive and fast track, it just perpetuates these kinds of hasty development projects.