After hearing an update Wednesday from Bill Barrett Corp. about its plans to drill 800 natural-gas wells on Utah's Tavaputs Plateau above Nine Mile Canyon, a group of state legislators decided they will send a letter to federal regulators in support of the project.

Chairmen of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee plan to sign the letter that will be sent to the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency. A motion to approve sending the letter passed unanimously.

Committee member Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, who made the motion, wants the agencies to "act expeditiously" in issuing permits so that the company can move forward with its project to dramatically increase its drilling in the region. Painter introduced to the committee the company's vice president of government and regulatory affairs, Duane Zavadil.

Zavadil told lawmakers that the

drilling will take place miles away from Nine Mile Canyon and its collection of centuries-old American Indian rock-art panels. But he said his company's trucks will have to drive through the canyon daily to access the plateau.

A watchdog group, the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, contends that dust stirred up and emitted by the trucks jeopardizes the rock art and threatens the canyon's air quality. The company has been using several different suppressants to control dust in the canyon.

Zavadil told the committee that his company has spent almost $2 million in recent years to improve the road through the canyon that spans Carbon and Duchesne counties. One of those efforts was to reroute a road away from the famed Great Hunt panel. He also said Barrett employees haven't so much as turned over an arrowhead in the canyon or on the plateau during their work.

"We will, in fact, avoid every cultural resource," he said.

The expanded drilling will bring 150 jobs to the area as the company spends at least $250 million a year to develop resources on the plateau, Zavadil said. Although the extra drilling will increase Utah's natural-gas production, the 800 wells may not have a net impact on prices in Utah as the gas would be piped into interstate lines and likely distributed elsewhere, he said. But the drilling may help lower natural-gas prices nationally.

Sen. Michael Waddoups, R- Taylorsville, told Zavadil that the company's advertisements asking for support of the Tavaputs project may be confusing to Utahns who hear the company's claims about lower natural-gas prices, thinking the project will automatically translate into lower costs here.

But Zavadil said Utah will benefit from royalties and a severance tax on whatever Barrett makes from its expanded Tavaputs project, which may net the state in the range of $100 million a year over the life of the project.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said people should be less concerned about dust that always naturally blows around in the canyon and focus more on not "empowering foreign nations" by standing in the way of developing natural resources.

Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, told Zavadil that radical environmental groups tend to stop resource development for fear of its impact on climate change.

When asked by Rep. Sylvia Andersen, R-Sandy, about whether Barrett has done enough to protect Nine Mile Canyon's "archaeological gifts" and meet with the canyon's residents and caretakers, Zavadil said informal talks with groups like the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition have broken down due to lawsuits.

"The act of driving by these (art) resources doesn't impact them," Zavadil said. "It would be nice if we didn't have to use that road altogether."

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