They gave peace a chance, and in 26 days watchers from Wall Street to Carbon Avenue will know if it worked.
"They" are gas exploration giant Bill Barrett Corp., the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Carbon County government, and the Bureau of Land Management. The 26 days are what remain of the 30-day limit for anyone to file an appeal against the massive West Tavaputs Plateau gas field development that got final approval from Washington Thursday.
On Friday, the BLM published its long-awaited record of decision and environmental impact statement approving Bill Barrett's full-field development of natural gas wells. Most of those wells and infrastructure will be in Carbon County. Barring an unforeseen protest, the company will be able to begin gradually drilling up to 626 wells in the high country. It expects to extract at least 324 billion cubic feet of natural gas and as much as 1.3 trillion cubic feet over the next 20 to 30 years.
Carbon County commissioner Bill Krompel said Friday he is pleased with the decision and predicted benefits to the county for years to come. (See related story.)
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the project "historic" in a statement released Thursday by the BLM. This is not because of the scale of the proposal, but because it has gotten to final approval without any litigation. It was done by negotiation instead. Since the draft environmental impact statement was released in February 2008, SUWA, the county and Bill Barrett went to the table and sorted out the issues.
SUWA was representing a range of interests from archeology to wildlife. Given the closeness of the gas field to the Jack and Desolation Canyons wilderness study areas and the potential for damage to the ancient Native American rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, there was much to talk about.
The discussions resulted in a final plan that Salazar said "improves protections for air, land, water and cultural resources, while reducing potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming litigation."
Bill Barrett chairman, president and chief executive officer Fred Barrett got to the bottom line. As quoted in the BLM statement, he said, "The collaboration leading to this record of decision is simply good business."
Improvements in technology also played a role in easing concerns of environmentalists. By using directional drilling techniques, the company will be able to drill its wells from only 120 pads. Not only has the company cut 181 wells from its original proposal, but it has reduced the number of pads necessary by about two-thirds. As a result, surface disturbance on the whole project will be only 1,603 acres instead of the original 3,656.
The record of decision also specifies that the sensitive Jack and Desolation Canyons wilderness study areas will not be affected by drilling or production. There will be no more than five drill rigs operating at any given time, which will reduce traffic, dust, and vehicle and mechanical emissions. The BLM does want locked gates on four dirt roads traversing the project area to prevent non-business traffic from disrupting the environment. There has been a dispute whether the county or the BLM owns those roads, but Krompel said there is not much chance of the county pursuing the matter.
Wall Street liked the news. Bill Barrett stock jumped $1.86 per share to close at $33.97 on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday. By Monday morning shares were trading at $35.94.