SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Federal land managers approved another big natural-gas project Monday for eastern Utah and said they persuaded the driller to pull back from the wild Green River.
Environmental groups said drilling will nibble away at a proposed wilderness area for Desolation Canyon, which has seen little change since explorer John Wesley Powell remarked on "a region of wildest desolation" while boating the river in 1896. The area is populated by elk, deer and bighorn sheep.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management authorized Denver-based Gasco Energy Inc. to drill 1,298 wells on no more than 575 drill pads set back from the high cliffs of Desolation Canyon.
W. King Grant, Gasco's president and CEO, pledged to "responsibly develop the energy resources within this field." He said it took eight years to win's BLM's approval with input from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that oversees Desolation Canyon's status as a National Historic Landmark.
"We have enjoyed a very collaborative and successful working relationship with all of the federal agencies involved, as well as state, county and local government stakeholders," Grant said Monday.
BLM officials said no well would be closer than five miles to the Green River, and they can still withhold or modify conditions for drilling at each site.
"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," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
No drilling is planned inside Nine Mile Canyon, sometimes called the world's longest art gallery with thousands of prehistoric rock drawings. Gasco would be allowed to drill in the highlands above the 78-mile canyon, which drains a year-round stream into the Green River, where a boat launch sends river rafters on floats through Desolation Canyon.
Gasco's approval came a month after Salazar authorized Anadarko Petroleum Corp., based in The Woodlands, Texas, to drill up to 3,675 new gas wells over the next decade in another area of eastern Utah.
Environmental groups said they were involved in those negotiations and lauded Anadarko for avoiding the cliffs of the White River, the last major free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau. The company also was praised for agreeing to buy 640 acres of private land along the river for conservation.
According to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Salazar's approval lets Gasco drill 215 wells inside the proposed Desolation Canyon wilderness area.
"This is spectacular wilderness land that could be destroyed by this project," said SUWA staff attorney Steve Bloch.
The Desolation Canyon designation is part of America's Red Rock Wilderness Act, a bill that has languished for decades before Congress without the support of the Utah delegation. In all, the legislation calls for about 14,000 square miles of wilderness across southern and eastern Utah.
In an interview, Utah BLM director Juan Palmer said his agency got Gasco to pull back from the Green River by about half the distance that SUWA and other environmental groups wanted.
"We met environmentalists halfway. That's what they're concern is, that we should have gone all the way," he said.
Salazar's decision could result in lasting damage to the solitude of Desolation Canyon, said Peter Metcalf, the CEO and president of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., a maker of outdoor gear.
"This decision makes no sense, particularly when there was a viable alternative supported by congressional leaders, conservation organizations, the American outdoor industry, and tens of thousands of citizens endorsed an alternative drilling plan that would have allowed Gasco to develop the majority of the project area and at the same time protected the sanctity of the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness," Metcalf said Monday.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which provides legal support to environmental groups, condemned the "head-long rush to drill for oil and gas."
"Such a drastic expansion of drilling in Utah's proposed Desolation Canyon wilderness will also aggravate Uintah Basin's already-unenviable status as one of the most polluted regions in America," said Sharon Buccino, director of NRDC's Land and Wildlife program.
The BLM is considering other gas-drilling projects for eastern Utah. Next up for approval is a proposal by Houston-based Newfield Exploration Co. to drill 5,700 wells on land immediately north of Gasco's project and father from Desolation Canyon.
Newfield is proposing an "in-fill" project that takes advantage of existing roads and well pads, Palmer said.