The Obama administration gave final approval Monday to another major gas field in eastern Utah, authorizing nearly 1,300 wells over 15 years on the West Tavaputs Plateau and angering conservationists in the process.
Following its approval of Anadarko's 3,700-well Greater Natural Buttes field south of Vernal last month, the Interior Department announced it will allow Gasco to drill on West Tavaputs, west of the Green River. But unlike Greater Natural Buttes, which won over environmental groups with air-quality protections and buffers around the White River, this project irks them.
The plan to drill on 3,600 acres near the put-in ramp for float trips through Desolation Canyon includes areas the Bush administration agreed contain wilderness qualities, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch said, "and now the Obama administration is authorizing their destruction."
He said SUWA has "little choice but to challenge the [Bureau of Land Management's] decision" in court, though he was still reviewing it for specific points of attack.
"This is really quite a shocking turnabout," said Bloch, who noted that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Salt Lake City last month lauding Anadarko's compromise as a template for responsible energy development.
No such compromise happened with Gasco, which nonetheless has said it met with SUWA and other groups a half-dozen times last year and withdrew some well proposals.
"Gasco appreciates that the Green River is a popular river-rafting location, and it specifically removed all wells that would be visible from the Green River viewshed," said W. King Grant," CEO of the Denver-based company. He called it a "misperception" that the project is near Desolation Canyon.
"As we move forward with President [Barack] Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy," Salazar said Monday in a news release, "we must strive for balanced, environmentally appropriate development of our nation's energy resources."
Interior whittled Gasco's original proposal from 7,500 acres and 1,500 wells to 3,600 acres and a maximum of 1,298 wells.
"This plan reflects our commitment to responsibly address public concerns regarding resource and land-use issues in the Uinta Basin area," Salazar said. "Working together with Gasco Energy Inc., we have made substantial improvements to protect land and water resources, safeguarding iconic areas such as Desolation and Nine Mile canyons, while supporting Utah's economy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil."
The approval took too long eight years and doesn't undo the administration's 2009 cancellation of 77 drilling leases with "devastating impacts on jobs, families and communities," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Monday. But he acknowledged it's good news for the state's economy.
"While this seems like the result of election-year politics," he said, "I'm pleased by today's announcement. In fact, maybe if we had a presidential election every year we might actually get closer to true energy independence."
The BLM said the nearest proposed drill site would be five miles from the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area a distinction that Bloch called meaningless because some wells will wipe out other wild areas being eyed for wilderness legislation, while exploratory wells can creep closer under the order. One proposed well, he noted, is three miles from the Sand Wash boat launch.
"The project area is practically on top of Desolation Canyon," Bloch said.
Peter Metcalf, president of Utah-based outdoor gear maker Black Diamond, criticized the decision, saying it ignored both his industry and thousands of Americans who commented on the plan and preferred a couple of hundred fewer wells with a wider Desolation Canyon buffer.
"Secretary Salazar absolutely made the wrong decision to approve the Gasco project," Metcalf said, "which will result in significant, long-lasting damage to the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness."
The decision also drew rebukes from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., lead sponsor of the proposed America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.
"Such a drastic expansion of drilling in Utah's proposed Desolation Canyon wilderness will also aggravate Uinta Basin's already-unenviable status as one of the most polluted regions of America," said NRDC Land and Wildlife Program Director Sharon Buccino.
The basin's ozone pollution has sometimes doubled the Environmental Protection Agency's health standards in recent winters. It's an area with just 30,000 residents, leading to speculation and now a study about the links to oil and gas drilling.
The well field is expected to rise over 15 years and support 200 jobs, according to the BLM. It is thought to contain nearly 3 trillion cubic feet of gas.