Interior Secretary Ken Salazar continues to make good on his promise to restore much-needed balance and common sense to the regulation of oil and gas drilling in the West. And, so far, Utah has been the centerpiece of Salazar's campaign to roll back the "drill at all costs" policy of the previous administration.
The latest advance in Salazar's campaign came Wednesday with announcement of a legal settlement that effectively ends the application of so-called "categorical exclusions" giving energy companies a shortcut around regulations designed to protect sensitive natural and cultural resources from damage inflicted by drilling operations.
The exclusions, designed to rapidly speed energy development, allowed oil and gas companies to sink multiple gas wells across a wide area after completion of just a single environmental impact statement. Now, their use will be limited to projects that have been carefully evaluated for possible negative impacts on the environment, terrain and historical artifacts such as ancient rock art, graves and dwellings.
This critical policy correction grew out of a lawsuit filed in 2008 against the Bureau of Land Management for the methods it used to accelerate its approval of a request by Bill Barrett Corp. to drill new wells atop the West Tavaputs Plateau east of Price. The categorical-exclusion law challenged in court by the Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition had been applied to the 30 wells contested in the lawsuit.
Of paramount issue in the case was preservation of the ancient Indian petroglyphs and pictographs within Nine Mile Canyon, a 40-mile stretch of dirt road containing at least 10,000 archaeological sites. This priceless art gallery was jeopardized by Barrett's plan to add 800 new wells to the 100 it operates on the plateau. The project would bring more than 1,000 truck trips a day to the narrow Nine Mile road that connects to the plateau, kicking up clouds of dust that have been shown to erode the art along the canyon walls.
In a 2008 draft environmental impact statement, the BLM conceded that the project could harm the canyon's treasures. That finding gave precedence to the National Preservation Safety Act, which in turn jump-started negotiations leading to the settlement. The BLM must determine how dust and chemicals stirred up by big-rig traffic in the canyon might affect its archaeology.
We applaud Salazar for his efforts to reverse the depredations inflicted on sensitive lands in the West by the Bush administration's willy-nilly rush to exploit the riches beneath them.