PRICE — Incorporating what land managers call a historic and unprecedented agreement between environmentalists and an oil and gas production company, the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday released its final environmental impact statement on the West Tavaputs Natural Gas Full Field Development Plan.
The decision by the federal agency fuses the cooperation reached by the Bill Barrett Corp. and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, as well as other groups such as the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.
Agency officials noted that the plan substantially reduces the project's environmental impacts, yet continues to allow for new gas and oil production.
"Today's announcement shows what is possible when parties work together to find common middle ground," said BLM Utah director Juan Palma. "I want to encourage this type of collaboration as a model to others interested in finding balanced solutions to complex issues."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the agreement was historic.
"It clearly provides for the orderly and balanced development of our nation's energy supply while at the same time serving as an outstanding example of the fresh look of how we can better manage our energy resources," Salazar said in a written statement. "It improves protections for air, land, water and cultural resources, while reducing potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming litigation."
During preparation of the final environmental statement, Bill Barrett Corp. submitted a letter voluntarily reducing the plan of development for the project, which is located in Carbon, Duchesne and Uintah counties.
Under the newly approved plan, Bill Barrett Corp. and other operators plan to drill 626 wells from 120 pads, reducing the initial proposal by 181 wells and 418 well pads. This reduces the short-term surface disturbance created by the project by more than half, from 3,656 acres to 1,603 acres.
In addition to reducing the amount of development and surface disturbance included in the company's proposal, the agreement contains a commitment not to construct wells on existing leases in the Jack and Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Areas and minimize the amount of surface disturbance in areas with wilderness characteristics.
The corporation also will conduct additional air quality mitigation measures, particularly in dust suppression. Critics of the company's initial proposal feared the gas and oil drilling would irreparably harm the sensitive area, especially causing dust contamination on the thousands of ancient rock art panels found in Nine Mile Canyon, which has been touted as the world's longest "art gallery."
Environmentalists since have extended a hand to officials with Bill Barrett Corp., acknowledging that concessions made at the negotiation table help make the project more palatable.
"Energy production on federal land means working with a broad spectrum of stakeholders," said Fred Barrett, CEO and chairman of the board of Bill Barrett Corp. "SUWA and the organizations it represented in our discussions contributed to making our West Tavaputs project what I believe is the most environmentally progressive natural gas development in Utah. The collaboration leading to this (decision) is simply good business."
SUWA attorney Stephen Bloch said the cooperation reached with the oil and gas company helps protect the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness area while at the same time allowing for the development of a natural gas resource.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised the agreement, which he said was fostered in part by the involvement of the Balanced Resource Council he created last fall.
"This agreement is a perfect model of collaboration and proves that when people come together with a common goal, solutions are possible," he said in a press release.
The draft environmental statement, opened for comment in February 2008, generated 58,000 comment letters from federal agencies, state and local government, tribes and other groups.
Those comments led to the revisions incorporated in the new environmental statement, which also draws on key tenets of the "Programmatic Agreement" to protect cultural resources. That agreement, announced in December of last year, was signed Jan. 5 and addresses project development issues, including visual and auditory impacts associated with energy development.
The BLM has decided to release both the final environmental impact statement and its "record of decision." A 30-day appeal period will run concurrently.
Electronic copies of both documents are available at www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/price/energy/Oil_Gas.html. A hard copy can be obtained on request from the Price field office.