Any time a petroleum company, environmentalists, Indian tribes and local and federal governments can agree to a deal that will allow the drilling of 3,675 natural gas wells and add about 4,000 new jobs while pouring billions into state tax coffers, that is worth applauding.
The Greater Natural Buttes record of decision, signed recently by those parties, will allow Anadarko Petroleum Corp., to drill on about 163,000 acres in the Uinta Basin. Every little bit of energy extracted in this nation — particularly natural gas — brings the United States that much closer to relinquishing its reliance on oil from repressive regimes that often pose threats to world stability. It also increases private-market pressures to switch the transportation industry's reliance from traditional gas and oil to natural gas, the supplies of which are expanding yearly as new extraction methods are perfected.
The deal that attracted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Utah for a signing ceremony is not ideal. One industry official assailed it as a cave-in by Anadarko, which was forced to make concessions in order to avoid litigation. But that is precisely why the agreement was important. Anadarko still will need federal permits for each well on BLM land, but the agreement removes a potential major obstacle and brings the nation that much closer to benefitting from the extraction.
Like it or not, there are many sides and opinions to the idea of natural gas extraction on federal lands in sensitive areas. The industry could plow forward, hoping to weather years of expensive litigation to get what it wants, but a negotiated agreement seems more prudent and cost-effective.
The state of Utah learned that lesson the hard way during construction of the Legacy Parkway through Davis County on land considered sensitive to migrating birds and watershed near the Great Salt Lake. Environmentalists sued, halting construction for several years. Finally, the state and environmentalists agreed to a set of conditions, including a prohibition on commercial truck traffic and a 55 mph speed limit. Some people lamented that environmentalists had been allowed to dictate terms. In reality, both sides got some of what they wanted, especially the state, which got a serviceable highway to relieve congested rush-hour commutes through the county.
In the natural gas drilling compromise, Anadarko will limit its drilling in wilderness-quality lands in the White River area. Conservation easements will be put in place to ensure that the sights and sounds of drilling won't infringe on pristine lands.
Battles over wilderness designations and drilling on federal lands have continued for decades in Utah. Without negotiated settlements, there likely will be no quick resolutions. The political process certainly has been unable to bring about any solutions. This agreement recognizes the needs of all sides and removes significant barriers to drilling that will help America's energy needs and Utah's economy.