Drilling compromise in scenic Utah receives national praise

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A compromise announced last week over energy development in a scenic part of Utah has won national praise as a model for settling environmental disputes.

A member of President Barack Obama's cabinet cited the "deal on drilling" Tuesday as an example of what can happen when seemingly natural enemies sit down and work out their differences. On the ground in Utah, it means a huge supply of natural gas will be tapped without major damage to wilderness resources.

There had been a history of acrimony; but, you know, we were able to roll up our sleeves very quickly, act like mature adults and sit around a table.

–Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

The pacified battleground is a sprawling region of cliffs and canyons: on one side, archaeological treasures in Nine Mile Canyon; on the other, scenic splendor in Desolation Canyon.

The Bill Barrett Corporation battled critics for years over a proposal to drill hundreds of natural gas wells in the area. Environmental groups energized the faithful, unleashing 53,000 written comments to the federal government.

The company faced lawsuits and long delays from the new Obama administration.

"[We] saw a window of opportunity to, like I say, sort of pre-settle our differences without losing any time," said Duane Zavadil, senior vice president at the Bill Barrett Corporation.

The company sat down for a year of negotiations with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.


"There had been a history of acrimony; but, you know, we were able to roll up our sleeves very quickly, act like mature adults and sit around a table," said Steve Bloch, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Now the two sides are acting as one, selling their deal to the public.

The company agreed to pull back from key wilderness areas -- dramatically reducing the number of drill-sites, using more horizontal drilling to reach gas under sensitive areas -- a deal that won support in Washington.

"I think it was this administration that sort of opened up the bounds a bit and said, ‘Hey, if you guys can find a way to reach an agreement, we'll find a way to respect that,'" Zavadil said.

"I think it shows that our side of the table, and the industry side, can be creative if we're willing to sit down and talk," Bloch said.

Zavadil even said he believes his company wound up with a better plan than they started with.

The company says the deal raised their costs somewhat, but it will allow them to actually increase the amount of natural gas they're going to get. It's enough to supply half of Utah's demand over the next couple of decades.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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