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Oil well destined for the heart of Nevada’s new national monument

A national monument created last year to preserve a vast, unspoiled sweep of central Nevada is about to get a new oil well.

The Bureau of Land Management has cleared Nevada’s largest oil producer to drill in Coal Valley, at the heart of the 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument designated by President Barack Obama in July.

California-based Makoil Inc. plans to sink a well 7,500 feet deep in search of oil near Murphy Gap Reservoir, a dry lake bed in Lincoln County, 140 miles north of Las Vegas and about 20 miles from the nearest paved road.

Chris Hanefeld, spokesman for the BLM’s district office in Ely, said he couldn’t speak to how unusual it is for oil drilling to take place within a national monument. But he said approval of the well is consistent with the presidential proclamation that created Basin and Range.

“It recognizes valid existing rights. We’re following the language in the proclamation and following through with a valid existing right,” Hanefeld said.

An environmental assessment by the BLM determined the drilling operation would have “no significant impacts” on the monument.

The BLM issued Makoil a 10-year oil lease on the parcel in 2010. The company applied for a permit to drill in July 2014, one year before Obama designated the monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act.

During an Oval Office signing ceremony July 10, Obama described the lonely expanse of high desert and mountains as “one of the most undisturbed corners of the Great Basin.”

So far, there isn’t much evidence on the ground of the area’s elevated status.

The BLM put up signs on some roads leading into the monument, but nothing else has been built.

“We’re still in what’s called the envisioning phase,” Hanefeld said.

As part of that process,the bureau created a website for the monument and posted a link to an “envisioning questionnaire” that will be used in the development of a management plan and environmental impact statement.

The monument straddles Lincoln and Nye counties and takes in all of Coal Valley, Garden Valley and the Golden Gate Range between them. It also includes the Worthington Mountains, the Seaman Range and the Mount Irish Range, which is home to a ghost town and several petroglyph sites.

The only stretch of pavement is state Route 318, which skirts the monument’s eastern boundary. The only city is “City,” a 1½-mile-long plaza of interconnected sculptures by Michael Heizer that’s said to be one of the world’s largest pieces of art, still unfinished after more than 40 years.

The Garden Valley ranch and small farm where Heizer lives alongside his masterwork contains some of the only occupied buildings in the entire 1,100-square-mile monument.

Makoil plans to sink its well about 20 miles away from “City” and out of Heizer’s view behind the Golden Gate Range.

But the company will have to jump through some environmental hoops.

The BLM is requiring Makoil to line pits and reinforce structures to contain any drilling fluids and hazardous chemicals. Fences and netting must be put up to keep out livestock and wildlife. And biological surveys will be needed to determine if any burrowing owls, dark kangaroo rats or other sensitive species are present near the site.

The project is expected to disturb less than 6 acres. Its water will come from a nearby well owned by a rancher who grazes livestock in the area.

A message left at Makoil’s office in Lake Forest, California, was not returned.

The company’s website says it has been operating in Nevada since 1983.

According to state records, Makoil is the largest of seven oil producers in Nevada, with 33 wells in Nye County’s Railroad Valley that yielded 125,671 barrels of oil last year.

The state’s total oil output in 2015 was 281,382 barrels from 71 wells.

Mike Visher, deputy administrator for the Nevada Minerals Division, said the area encompassed by the national monument has seen oil exploration in the past. Records show six exploratory wells there, only one of which reported any oil or gas production.

None of those wells remains in operation today, Visher said. “While the geology may look good, the results so far haven’t been very promising.”

Makoil’s new drill site is 4 or 5 miles away from the nearest old well, Visher said.

If the company does strike oil, it will need to generate electricity on site to run its production operation. The president’s proclamation prohibits new power lines from being built across the monument.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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