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Long-Stalled Uinta Drilling Plan Gets New Life in Court Order

A natural gas development plan for the Uinta Basin in Northeast Utah by Denver-based Gasco Energy Inc. was given new life earlier this month when a federal district judge rejected claims by three environmental groups challenging the plan's approval by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) three years ago.

Magistrate Judge Evelyn Furse in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah was unswayed by claims that federal environmental and land management laws were violated in a lawsuit brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council and Wilderness Society against BLM and the Department of Interior.

In 2012, BLM approved Gasco's proposed development of a natural gas exploration and production (E&P) project that could include nearly 1,300 natural gas wells over 15 years, including 575 well pads, 198 miles of new roads and 316 miles of new pipelines in Utah's Uinta Basin (see Shale Daily, June 19, 2012).

The environmental groups alleged that BLM failed to follow steps required in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land, Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), but the judge disagreed.

"They do not sufficiently allege an increased risk of actual, threatened or imminent environmental harm stemming from [the project]," Furse said in a 19-page order released last Friday that did allow a motion that challenges part of the overall development plan to remain in play.

Both sides have scheduled meetings with the judge for Monday (July 27), and an SUWA attorney has told news media that the alliance has been trying to work with Gasco and BLM regarding about 200 proposed wells the environmental group is concerned about. The protesting groups are not opposed to the entire project, only parts that they allege are slated for sensitive wilderness areas in the Uinta.

When BLM first approved Gasco's Uinta plan early in 2012, the environmental groups joined forces to criticize the action, alleging that it would jeopardize "unique and rugged beauty" found in the Desolation Canyon wilderness. BLM subsequently revised its approval to mitigate those concerns.

The revised project included no plans for drilling or infrastructure in or near Desolation Canyon, noting that the nearest proposed drill site would lie about four miles northwest of the Desolation Canyon National Historic Landmark and five miles north of the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area.

Winter ozone for the Uinta generally has been raised as a problem, but a subsequent study by the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) found that the winter ozone levels were not elevated when drilling was increased in the area in 2012, nor this past winter. Earlier this year, a federal district court ruling upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision not to designate the Uinta Basin in Utah as a nonattainment area for ozone (see Shale Daily, June 5).

Natural gas production peaked in the Uinta in 2008 at about 1.15 Bcf/d and recent projections call for it declining slowly and flattening out at about 900 MMcf/d by 2020. The number of active rigs has dropped from 59 in 2008 to 11 currently, with most of those being oil rigs.

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