Deal clears way for more gas drilling in eastern Utah
Environmental groups have struck a deal with an energy company that greenlights gas development on a reduced scale in scenic areas along the White River in eastern Utah's Uintah County.
Denver-based Enduring Resources LLC recently finalized an agreement with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society that ends years of legal wrangling about the company's Rock House Project, an expansion of gas-drilling operations about 35 miles south of Vernal.
"The agreement provides certainty to all parties," Steve Bloch, an attorney for SUWA, said Monday.
Not only can the company develop its natural gas leases on state, federal and private lands, he added, but also people who hike and canoe the scenic river can expect the wilderness and river resources to endure.
Juan Palma, director of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said the settlement "provides for the orderly and balanced development of our nation's energy resources."
"It serves as an example," Palma said, "of a fresh look at how we can develop our resources responsibly while, at the same time, protecting our air, land, water and cultural resources."
Officials with Enduring Resources did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.
The agreement ends a 2008 lawsuit the conservation groups brought to contest the BLM's approval of the Rock House Project, a proposal to develop 60 natural gas wells.
A federal judge agreed with the groups, in part, that more work needed to be done on the BLM's analysis of the project's potential impacts to air quality. The judge directed the agency to re-examine the issue.
Under the deal, the BLM said in a statement, the company will retain most of the wells originally proposed while also reducing the project's surface footprint. Enduring will cut the number of new well pads and new roads and limit truck traffic near the White River when it is used mostly for recreation. In addition, the company will use "best management practices" for air quality as part of the BLM's ongoing efforts to reduce ozone levels in the Uinta Basin.
The accord is the third of its kind in 15 months in which the energy industry and advocacy groups have struck a compromise.
An agreement announced last July protects natural resources for the recreation values and their oil and gas potential in West Tavaputs. In January 2010, advocates on both sides hammered out a similar settlement that will allow more drilling around Nine Mile Canyon, an area world famous for its ancient rock art.
Additional drilling for the Rock House Project is taking place south of a stretch of the White River that features scenic vistas and flat-water canoe paddling for families.