Ray Bloxham, SUWA
Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County. Under the BLM's preferred alternative, Gasco Energy Inc. would be authorized to drill from along the tops of the Bad Land Cliffs in background and on the intermediate benches and along Wrinkle Road, a main access point to the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River.

WASHINGTON — Dismay on one side and jubilation on the other.

That's the reaction to Monday's announcement by the Interior Department that it has approved the expansive Gasco natural gas project in the Uintah Basin. Environmental groups called it a betrayal of the collaborative approach to energy extraction, while community officials and others hailed the decision for the economic boost it will bring to the area, including the potential for more than 2,700 jobs by one estimate.

"We are very pleased it has been approved. It's been a long time coming," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, noting it will infuse a $5 billion investment to the economy over the life of the project.

The Gasco natural gas project calls for an estimated 1,300 new wells to be drilled over a 15-year-period. In addition to providing new jobs for the area, the Bureau of Land Management said the approved plan will guide future development of an area that could yield nearly 3 trillion cubic feet of gas over the next several decades.

But opponents said the boost to the economy comes with irreparable costs, sacrificing a pristine wilderness area in favor of dollars.

“Desolation Canyon is an essential part of one of the nation’s most important wildlife areas, the Book Cliffs,” said Mark Clemens of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We call this area America’s Serengeti. To mar this area permanently over 200 new natural gas wells is a serious error in land-management decision-making.”

Gasco Chief Executive Officer and President W. King Grant countered that complaint: "We realize that there is concern and a misperception by some that Gasco's project area is within close proximity to Desolation Canyon," Grant said in a statement released by the company Monday.

"In fact, our project area is six miles from the northern edge of Desolation Canyon. Gasco appreciates that the Green River is a popular river rafting location, and it specifically removed all wells that would be visible from the Green River view-shed."

Steve Bloch with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the move by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar smacks of hypocrisy because it derails any notion of a "balanced approach" to energy development touted by the Obama administration.

“Secretary Salazar’s approval of the controversial Gasco project is wholly inconsistent with several recent agreements between industry, the Interior Department, and conservation groups over equally large and complex natural gas projects in eastern Utah,” Bloch said. “With this decision, the secretary’s rhetoric of a collaborative approach to tackling difficult problems has fallen flat.”

But Salazar, in making the announcement, said the project reflects the essence of balancing protection of the evironment with extraction of natural resources.

"Working together with Gasco Energy, Inc., we have made substantial improvements to protect land and water resources, safeguarding iconic areas such as Desolation and Nine Mile Canyons, while supporting Utah’s economy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

No drilling or infrastructure will be developed in or near Desolation Canyon, according to the BLM. The agency said the nearest proposed drill site is about four miles northwest of the Desolation Canyon National Historic Landmark and five miles north of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

“As we move forward with President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, we must strive for balanced, environmentally appropriate development of our nation’s energy resources,” Salazar said.  “This plan reflects our commitment to responsibly address public concerns regarding resource and land use issues in the Uintah Basin area."

The BLM said the final plan approved Monday is a scaled-back version of what was initially proposed by the company. That plan had called for nearly 1,500 gas wells and the same number of well pads, with a total disturbance area of 7,533 acres, including well pads in Nine Mile Canyon north of Desolation Canyon.

The final plan approved allows a maximum of 1,298 wells that will be drilled from no more than 575 well pads. Surface disturbance has been reduced by one-half to 3,600 acres, or about 2 percent of the total development area of 206,826 acres. The plan also incorporates directional drilling to reduce surface impacts. The plan prohibits any wells below the rim of Nine Mile Canyon, in the 100-year floodplain, or in critical habitat for endangered fish, according to the agency.

Gasco officials said the project will tap an existing gas field that has 135 producing wells and accompanying infrastructure. It referenced a study by the Western Energy Alliance claiming 2,710 jobs and $613 million in economic activity annually.

“Today’s announcement is a prime example of the successful collaboration among the BLM, Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Uintah and Duchesne counties,” said Juan Palma, the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah state director.

“Together, we worked with Gasco to step up and find ways to minimize impacts to wildlife habitat, air quality and other resources in the Uinta Basin while harnessing important energy resources for our nation.”

 The Record of Decision on the Gasco project is available online at: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/vernal/planning/nepa_.html E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: amyjoi16