Ray Bloxham, SUWA
SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management is moving forward on a proposed natural gas project in eastern Utah that would encompass more than 200,000 acres and include nearly 1,300 new natural gas wells.
Under an alternative endorsed by the federal agency Friday, the Gasco Energy Uinta Basin natural gas project could likely receive official approval by mid-April after review of a final environmental impact statement.
Juan Palma, Utah director for the BLM, said the release of the document moves the state closer to expanding its natural gas production capabilities.
"Today's announcement represents an important first 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," Palma said.
Located in Uintah and Duchesne counties, Gasco's project area takes in 206,826 acres in an existing gas producing area, according to the BLM, and allows up to 1,298 new gas wells that would be drilled from 575 well pads over 15 years. The total new surface disturbance area would be an estimated 3,604 acres, or about 2 percent of the total project area, according to the BLM.
A coalition of environmental groups blasted the step forward in approving the Gasco project, saying the new natural gas wells will jeopardize the unique and rugged beauty of the Desolation Canyon wilderness.
"This document really sets the stage for the development for what Gasco and the BLM envision for this remote part of the Uinta Basin," said Steve Bloch, attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
SUWA, joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, said the project will degrade the region's already compromised air quality and threaten Utah's desert recreation and tourism industry valued at $4 billion.
"The Desolation Canyon region is one of the most iconic landscapes of wilderness that Utah is known for," said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club. "People come from all over the world to Desolation every year for the many outdoor experiences. To permanently mar this area over 200 new natural gas wells (in the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness area) is a serious error in land management decision-making."
But the BLM said it came up with an agency alternative to what the company had proposed that incorporates input received during the comment period two years ago — requiring some directional drilling that reduces surface impacts and downsizing the number of allowable wells and well pads.
Under this alternative, no well pads will be located within half mile or line of sight of the Green River or within 2 miles of the Sand Wash campground/boat launch or Desolation Canyon.
Additionally, the project would bar development in the Green River floodplain and Nine Mile Canyon and prohibit surface disturbance in riparian and wetland areas, according to the BLM.
BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorney added that despite groups' criticism about potential air quality impacts, the Environmental Protection Agency had signficant review and input into the proposal.
"We worked hand in glove with them," she said. "This proprosal is reflective of what the EPA wants done by this company on this project."
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