A view of part of the west Tavaputs Plateau area.
Long time allies on drilling for gas in the Tavaputs Plateau, Bill Barrett Corporation and Carbon County have been at odds for a couple of months over efforts by the by the the Denver-based company to remove obstacles to its five -year pursuit of federal approval for year-round drilling in the 60-year old West Tavaputs gas field.
But at least some of that was settled this past couple of weeks when in three separate negotiating sessions, the three groups (Carbon County, Barrett and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), along with the state and with the cooperation of the Bureau of Land management, came to a tentative agreement on the issues involved.
"Along with all the partners we have this tentative agreement that will move this thing forward," said Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich on Friday. "The agreement is not yet public because it still needs some fine tuning by all those involved."
The original negotiations began with SUWA and Barrett sitting down and were centered on balancing multiple uses on lands on the eastern portion of the plateau and involved the company's request to gate roads on the eastern part of the plateau. The closures would be for the life of the project, estimated to be approximately 30 years.
The company cited protections of resources during year round operations as well as public safety.
"We are in an era where proposals on federal lands generate a lot of stakeholder involvement," noted Jim Felton, a spokesman for Barrett. "And the more folks involved, the more complex the negotiations. Everyone has been willing to make concessions, fortunately. We hope all of us are getting to the point where everyone feels the concessions are fairly distributed among the parties involved."
County officials have expressed their concerns about Barrett's proposal, and have expressed concern that the company was not keeping the commissioners informed about the negotiations that were conducted without the knowledge of the county until a few weeks ago.
"What upset us was that they started doing these negotiations without telling us they were doing them," said Milovich. "They told us about five months ago they were going to talk with SUWA but we didn't think they would move ahead with actual negotiations without us."
Local discussion has centered on talks of trading closing off some roads in the Tavaputs area for avoiding court challenges and appeals by SUWA so that drilling can begin in the West Tavaputs area.
The details, while not public as of yet, consisted of asking the BLM and county to allow gates across some designated roads in the area.
"We have a billion dollars invested in this area and are hoping to have the opportunity to invest twice that amount over the next couple of decades, but getting there has required, as business deals so often do, compromise," said Felton earlier last month during a meeting with some business people. "Our efforts are in the context of building our company. That said, we know the county, which has done so much in the past to assist our efforts, has a different perspective relating to operations on federal lands and our request. Time is money in business. Investors are asking if the cost of waiting further is worth it, or if we should be investing elsewhere."
The county, for its part, has always been against closing any kind of public access, regardless of the reason. They mostly feel that if gates are allowed on any public access, it will set a precedent that could lead to many more closures in the future.
"Bill Barrett Corporation does not downplay the importance of roads and access on federal lands in the west. They are every bit as important psychologically as they are economically and politically," Felton said. "We see the commissioners' position. At the same time, we are trying to get to an agreement that lets us continue to operate. Our ability to do so is obviously important to our company, and I would argue that it's extremely important to the state and Carbon County as well. The county commissioners are the first to acknowledge that, and they, like us, are being as creative as possible in getting this thing done."
At the Chamber of Commerce luncheon held on May 20 Felton was the guest speaker and once again related their situation to the crowd gathered there.
`The question and answer session that followed Felton's speech including comments on both sides from land use advocates that don't want to see any closures to others that said if it wasn't done the county may as well forget ever getting any more substantial gas revenues and economic benefit out of the Tavaputs field.
At the time Felton cited a University of Utah study showing oil and gas to be a $22 million industry in Carbon and Emery Counties, as well as a Carbon County study showing energy companies to be paying millions to the county as nine of the top 10 payers of property tax.
In 2009 Barrett was ranked second highest payer into the county coffers.
But taxes aren't the only thing that need to be considered. Jobs and payrolls are also going to be important in the ability to drill wells. Overall the project could be worth about $300 million over the next 10 years.
But now it seems the problems of those early negotiations have been cast aside as the groups have worked together to get things moving.
"In these negotiations we had to look at the global picture," said Milovich. "We needed to look at what was good for the county (taxes and expanded payroll of new jobs), what was good for the environment, what was good for Barrett and what was good for our country as a whole."
Once the agreement is signed the details of it will be released to the public.