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Utah Makes Deal For Private Gas Drilling on Pristine Public Land

August 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
White River, Utah, attracts adventurers for its gorgeous vistas and rare solitude. But proposals to drill for natural gas on the public land worry environmentalists and Native American tribes. Ray Suarez tells of efforts by energy companies and the federal government to strike a deal to drill and protect the environment.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next, we continue our series on the big changes in energy production in the U.S.

In previous stories, Ray Suarez has looked at the impact of oil production on some boomtowns and how a demand for natural gas is changing the business for coal and alternative fuels.

Tonight, Ray visits Utah, his focus, the use of public lands for private development.

RAY SUAREZ: The banks of the White River in eastern Utah are perfectly quiet, in a way it’s sometimes hard to find in a world of seven billion people, just the sounds of gently flowing water, a hint of a breeze, the occasional bird.

The gorgeous vistas and rare solitude sit on public land thousands of feet above a bonanza trapped deep in the earth. From high above, it’s easy to see how the gas industry has changed the landscape, with gas wells by the thousands altering the fragile desert ecosystem.

Utah environmentalists say the view from the air and from the canyon floor illustrate why they want these public lands protected.

STEPHEN BLOCH, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: You know, what families find when they come here, what outfitters, what Americans come to experience this place, it’s the quiet, it’s the solitude, it’s that you don’t have the sight and sounds of human development around you. It’s a place where people can come and restore themselves.

There are more cliffs on this side. And that’s an area where there really are just these fantastic spires and columns. And it’s pretty remarkable.

RAY SUAREZ: A year earlier, Stephen Bloch from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance brought gas industry representatives from Anadarko Petroleum Corporation to this same stretch of river to convince the industry giant to consider the impact on pristine riverbanks in their pending request to drill in the Greater Natural Buttes region.

Anadarko’s existing permits were expiring. The company wanted to bring out gas left behind by past wells and old-fashioned drilling methods and make a new plan with the United States Bureau of Land Management.

The Wilderness Alliance asked Anadarko to drill further away from the river floors, to erect wells away from the canyon rims, so they can’t be seen by canoers and hikers.

The energy company Anadarko had a lot riding on the Greater Natural Buttes project, and the numbers are staggering: 3,700 wells, six trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, billions to be paid in royalties to the state government of Utah and to the federal government, and thousands of jobs created.

The only question was, could they pull all that gas out of the ground and make peace with environmentalists and Indian tribes to save one of America’s last great landscapes?

BRAD MILLER, Anadarko: The several feet that we would see in this, we could drill in an hour or less.

RAY SUAREZ: Brad Miller, who runs regulatory affairs for Anadarko, understood the importance of bringing environmental groups on board.

BRAD MILLER: If people can come to an agreement before you have to go to a regulatory agency to discuss the opportunities for development, of course that’s going to be a plus for the company and for all the stakeholders involved.

RAY SUAREZ: The secretary of the interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management. With the parties already in agreement, there’s no litigation, less hassle and more natural gas going to market right away.

INTERIOR SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: It is my view that protecting the environment and developing oil and gas are not mutually exclusive. Those who say they are, are providing us a false choice.

RAY SUAREZ: So, the Wilderness Alliance gets a pristine river valley for its constituents, and Anadarko gets the natural gas underneath it for its shareholders.

STEPHEN BLOCH: I think what we have shown here and in a number of other places in Utah is that we can find that kind of middle ground, that there are compromises that can be reached that protect the special places, while still allowing for a vibrant, for a robust level of natural gas and oil development.

BRAD MILLER: It is a shining model and a shining example of what we need to try to accomplish across the board in the industry. Let’s work collaboratively with the environmental community and the other stakeholders, the local governments, the regulators as well, to meet everybody’s need, because bringing the important natural gas resource to America is extremely important.

KEN SALAZAR: My advocacy to the industry is, follow those best practices that some companies are following. And, therefore, when we develop in those places, what we’re going to do is to minimize the footprint by the new technologies on horizontal drilling and placing multiple wells on one pad and taking care of water and taking care of emissions. Those are hugely win-win solutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Multiple wells drilled from the same spot mean fewer roads kicking up dust across the wilderness, fewer truck runs carrying millions of gallons of water for high-pressure underground pumping to crack open gas deposits.

Natural gas isn’t the only thing out here to sell. Wilderness recreation is a big industry. The White River is a popular spot for canoeing outfitters. Centennial Canoe has run trips on the river for 25 years.

MARTY GENEREUX, Centennial Canoe: You feel like you’re on a wilderness adventure, rather than being at a zoo, where the animals are caged, or being in the city or an aquarium. This is all natural. It’s real.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the battles over? Can Indian tribes, environmentalists, energy companies and the federal government walk shoulder-to-shoulder into a gorgeous Utah sunset? Not exactly.

STEPHEN BLOCH: This area is an island in a sea of natural gas wells.

RAY SUAREZ: For guys like Bloch, it’s never really over. He pointed out land near Utah’s Desolation Canyon, where the Bureau of Land Management recently approved 1,298 new wells for the natural gas company Gasco.

STEPHEN BLOCH: The Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River is truly one of the — the gems of American public lands. It’s this remarkably wild landscape, one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48. And that is going to be lost. The level of development will be significant. It will significantly impact that area.

RAY SUAREZ: The decision was a huge disappointment for Bloch, who says, once these places are developed, there’s no going back. Though new leases require companies to leave the land the way they found it, a desert is very slow to heal and hard to reclaim.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Ray has pointed out, modern drilling technology is largely responsible for the changing energy picture in this country. That technology involves a process known as fracking.

In earlier reports, the NewsHour has covered the intense debate about fracking itself, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing.

You can find links to our reports, plus much more information about fracking, on our website.