An ongoing dust-up may have just gained clarity over how to further develop natural gas resources in the nearly 138,000 acres known as the West Tavaputs Plateau Project Area. A main issue is how to preserve "the world's longest rock art gallery" amid gas operations that critics say are already ruining centuries-old petroglyphs.
"We've had to take a hard look at all the issues in that area," said Brad Higdon, planning and environmental coordinator in the Bureau of Land Management's Price field office. "Certainly, cultural resources are key issues because of the sensitivity of the area."
The BLM announced Friday that the draft environmental impact statement for a proposal by Colorado-based Bill Barrett Corp. and other operators is now available for public comment until May 1. The BLM is scheduling public meetings to be held between now and May 1 in the Salt Lake City, Price and Roosevelt areas.
The plan proposed by Barrett Corp. and others is to drill up to 807 more natural gas wells in the Tavaputs Plateau. At full production from those added wells, the area could some day produce more than 50 percent of Utah's demand for natural gas, Higdon estimated.
But worries include how the added drilling will impact wilderness study areas, endangered species habitat, scenic areas and wildlife.
So far the BLM has heard the most from one group, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition. The canyon itself is home to ancient Indian rock art that is always on display and exposed in what some call an outdoor museum.
"Since 2002, the canyon has experienced the heavy impacts of the oil and gas industry," the coalition's Pam Miller said in a statement. "We have all seen the utter disregard for all values except energy development and now we are saying that enough is enough balance must be restored in our public lands management agencies."
Miller is referring to the effects dust and one particular supposed dust suppressant has been having on the rock art.
Higdon said the BLM commissioned a dust study that highlighted the potential for "adverse" effects on the rock art. Dust suppressants such as water and then later magnesium-chloride, now believed to be corrosive to the rock art panels, were found to be inadequate or too damaging.
"Those are two options that we need to move beyond," Higdon said.
One alternative among five listed in the draft environmental impact statement is to pave the road through Nine Mile Canyon, portions of which are already being paved by Carbon County crews. But the main road through the canyon feeds into many dirt side roads used by large trucks that drive right by some of the rock art panels.
In the Canyon Coalition's statement, it's estimated there have recently been as many as 342 trips in one day by "industrial traffic" through the canyon and that further oil and gas development in the area would add an estimated 500 more daily trips.
Last year Duane Zavadil, Barrett Corp.'s vice president of government and regulatory affairs, told the Deseret Morning News that environmental opposition and bureaucratic delays add $2 to $5 per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas sold. At the time, he blamed the previous five years of increased natural gas prices, from $1.50 to $10, on opposition and delays.
"It's still very real," Zavadil said on the phone Friday about that cause and effect.
Utah, he added, is one of six states in the country that exports some of its natural gas. With moratoriums on the east and west coasts on natural gas drilling, Zavadil said increased production in the Rockies has helped to keep natural gas supply at least close to demand.As for Barrett Corp.'s impact on rock art and wildlife, Zavadil said his employer has spent millions and will spend millions more to mitigate any potential for impacting art and animals. Public safety in the Nine Mile area, he noted, is also a major concern for Barrett Corp. and, at this point, Zavadil is encouraged that all sides interested in issues related to more drilling will be able to "gel" and move forward.