Drilling in Utah natural gas field gets feds' OK

Federal officials announced Thursday that drilling could soon begin on a natural gas project in eastern Utah that could include nearly 3,700 wells, create thousands of jobs and increase concerns about dangerous levels of air pollution.

To alleviate the negative impacts on air quality in the Uinta Basin, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. will have to significantly limit pollution emissions, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said during a conference call with reporters.

The proposed emission standards, surface impacts and other regulations for the project in the Greater Natural Buttes area are included in a draft environmental impact study being published Friday in the Federal Register. Public comment on the proposal will be accepted for 45 days.

If final approval is granted, Salazar said the project could yield 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The impacted area covers about 250 square miles near the Colorado border, although it is estimated that only about 5 percent of that land will be disturbed.

Officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the Environmental Protection Agency worked with Anadarko to minimize the impacts of the project, which was first proposed in 2006, Salazar said. While the air quality during the winter in the Uinta Basin "is some of the worst in the country," he said moving the project forward is important.

"We have to find sensible ways of allowing natural gas development to move forward, while at the same time protecting air quality," Salazar said.

Researchers from Utah State University and the Idaho National Laboratory are studying the pollution problem in the Uinta Basin, which they said could be caused as much by weather as emissions from energy companies or vehicles. Foul air also tends to get trapped in the bowl-like basin.

Environmental groups that have opposed the project said the air quality concerns are paramount.

"It behooves everyone to take the strictest measures possible to mitigate the pollution," said Tim Wagner, a representative with the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club.

Monitoring of the region's air pollution has only recently started on a limited scale, and the causes for the bad air are not easily identifiable, said Uintah County Commissioner Mark Raymond. But he applauded Anadarko for taking steps to limit additional pollution, such as electric motors for the pumps and a water pipeline that will eliminate the need for diesel-powered water trucks.

The economic benefits for the area are important because of Anadarko's plan to develop the project and add up to 4,000 jobs over the course of about a decade, Raymond said. While the county's unemployment rate is only about 6 percent, he said that is because many people have left families behind while they go to work in other states.

"We hope this will provide the opportunity for them to come back and work here for many years," Raymond said.

Anadarko spokesman Brian Cain said the project is important for the company, as well as the region's economy and the national energy portfolio.

"In addition to advancing our nation's goal of increasing domestic energy production, the Greater Natural Buttes project should bring significant economic benefit to the communities of the Uinta Basin and the surrounding area as a result of continued capital investment in this core operating area, as well as through the creation of numerous high-quality jobs," Cain said in a statement.