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Agreement reached on Uintah County drilling project

Published: Friday, April 1 2011 9:48 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Another compromise has been reached between a drilling company and environmental groups over a natural gas extraction project in Uintah County.

A group of conservation groups and Enduring Resources out of Denver agreed to a plan that significantly scales back an earlier proposal that had been contested in federal court.

The agreement involves the Rock House Project in the White River area of Uintah County, where the company had obtained the Bureau of Land Management's approval in 2007 to drill 60 natural gas wells on a combination of federal, state and private land.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society filed suit over the approval, challenging the agency's analysis over potential air quality impacts and environmental threats to a proposed wilderness area.

Under the compromise announced Friday by the BLM, the drilling company will "substantially" reduce its surface footprint by reducing the number of new well pads, reducing the number of new roads and restricting truck traffic near the river during peak recreational use.

Steve Bloch, the energy program director and attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the agreement achieves mutual goals for both the company and those who want to protect the land.

“The White River proposed wilderness area is an island of spectacular public lands and river in the midst of significant natural gas development in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin,” Bloch said.  “This agreement provides certainty to river runners and families visiting the White River that core aspects of the wilderness proposal will remain undeveloped, while the company enjoys certainty about its drilling program.”

The BLM touted the agreement as well, saying it will allow for resource development and at the same provide enhanced environmental protections for the area.

"This agreement provides for the orderly and balanced development of our nation's energy resources," said state BLM director Juan Palma. "It serves as an example of a fresh look at how we can develop our resources responsibly, while at the same time, protecting our air, land, water and cultural resources."

The agreement follows what was hailed a precedent-setting compromise officially penned in January 2010 and announced at the state Capitol between environmental groups and another drilling company, Bill Barrett Corp.

That compromise included a "programmatic" agreement in which the company agreed to substantially reduce its drilling operation in the Nine Mile Canyon area, which is home to the world's largest collection of ancient American Indian rock art panels. Bill Barrett Corp. reduced its wells by 26 percent and its surface area operations by 66 percent.

The company also agreed to a dust mitigation plan to prevent damage to the rock panels and help in the financing and construction of informational kiosks for visitors.

Later that year, the company announced it would spend up to $5 million to preserve archaeological resources in the canyon.

At a visit to Utah last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hailed the agreement as an example of how compromise between extraction companies and environmentalists can  allow for resource development and instill protections for the environment.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com Twitter: amyjoi16

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