What had the promise of turning into a winning streak for both the environment and Utah's extractive industries is threatened by a overly aggressive plan to drill some 1,300 new gas wells in the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other environmental groups had been on an encouraging roll recently. Separate deals worked out between conservationists and a pair of energy companies allowed the drillers the Bill Barrett Corp. and Enduring Resources to go ahead with modified plans to sink gas wells in ways that minimized the potential damage to historically significant artifacts and sensitive environmental areas.
As long as the American economy remains dependent on fossil fuels, and as long as the development of those fuels threatens to damage both our natural and our human heritage, compromises struck by competing interests will be necessary. Recent agreements suggested that such compromise, under the All of the Above energy policies that leaders of both parties claim to embrace, could become the new normal.
Unfortunately, it appears that another extractive enterprise Denver's Gasco Energy has not received the memo. It has plans, given preliminary approval by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to develop up to 1,298 gas wells on some 207,000 acres in Uintah and Duchesne counties.
The problem is not that there will be new gas wells in eastern Utah. The problem is that neither Gasco nor the BLM has shown any inclination to slow down and talk to the conservation groups as Bill Barrett and Enduring Resources responsibly did about some tweaks that would minimize environmental damages.
BLM officials have indicated they are ready to approve, after a 30-day notice period that began last Friday, a plan to place 223 of the wells in a stretch of the Desolation Canyon area that even the BLM has noted possesses wilderness characteristics. This despite a warning from their colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency, who hold that the plan does not meet federal environmental review standards.
The BLM's pending approval ignores an alternative plan, one that would still have allowed Gasco to drill some 1,100 wells, but keep them out of the wilderness-quality areas while drawing nearly as much gas using new and, admittedly, more expensive lateral drilling techniques.
Unless higher authorities intervene, an unnecessarily brutal drilling plan will be approved, the matter will go to court, and a trend toward reasonable compromise will come to an untimely end.