The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will OK 1,298 new eastern Utah gas wells proposed by Gasco Energy, according to a final environmental study released Friday.
Once drilled, the expanded Uinta Basin field would represent a significant boost to a gas industry that already has sunk more than 6,000 wells in the state, and Gov. Gary Herbert lauded the job prospects. Counting oil, the state is experiencing record production with more than 10,000 wells.
"This project has been a long time coming and subject to exhaustive environmental review," he said in a prepared statement. "The Uinta Basin is Utah's richest area for oil and gas and this project will bring needed new jobs and new revenue to the region and to the state."
Assuming the agency signs a final approval after a 30-day waiting period, the plan released Friday would allow intense gas drilling over nearly 207,000 acres across Uintah and Duchesne counties, rising along the West Tavaputs Plateau and nearing Desolation Canyon. That part angers conservationists and recreationalists, who prize that Green River canyon as a rafting access and secluded float area.
They criticized Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's nod to industry because they say he ignored an alternative that would have allowed development but protected the canyon's potential wilderness status.
"Secretary Salazar is making the wrong decision to approve the Gasco project in a way that creates irreversible risks to Desolation Canyon," said Peter Metcalf, president of Utah-based outdoor equipment maker Black Diamond.
Metcalf had communicated with BLM Director Bob Abbey last year, disagreeing with Abbey's assertion that Desolation Canyon was protected because no wells were planned within a few miles of a potential wilderness boundary. Drilling will diminish the wilderness experience, he wrote.
Unlike another gas plan for the nearby Nine Mile Canyon area, industry and the government could not reach a deal with conservationists to compromise on a production plan.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance called the plan a threat to the Lower 48 states' largest roadless complex, around Desolation Canyon, and the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that even the Environmental Protection Agency had criticized the proposal.
The EPA last year criticized a draft plan for, among other things, inadequately quantifying the project's effect on the Uinta Basin's elevated winter ozone pollution levels.
"It's bewildering that Secretary Salazar who has been such a strong advocate of conserving America's great outdoors would allow turning Desolation Canyon into an industrial wasteland," said Sharon Buccino, director of the council's Land and Wildlife Program.
But the BLM pointed out that much of the area already has been developed. Only 3,604 acres about 2 percent of the project area would be newly disturbed, while the rest would fill in with new wells.
"Today's announcement represents an important step in our efforts to expand domestic energy production here in Utah and across the country, while ensuring that development happens safely and responsibly with a minimal surface footprint," said BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma.
Call BLM environmental coordinator Stephanie Howard at 435-781-4400.
Write to Howard at 170 S. 500 East, Vernal, UT 84078.