Bill Barrett Corp. and several environmental groups cheered a decision Thursday by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to authorize full-field development of the natural gas-rich West Tavaputs Plateau in the Uinta Basin of Utah. The area holds an estimated 324 Bcfe of proved and 1.3 Tcfe of proved, probable and possible natural gas reserves on more than 40,000 acres.

BLM issued a Notice of Availability, with the record of decision (ROD) expected on Friday regarding the West Tavaputs environmental impact statement. The Federal Register posting of the decision initiates a 30-day period during which appeals may be filed, and drilling permits would depend on the "nature and disposition" of any appeals, Barrett noted.

Once it receives permits to drill, the Denver-based producer wants to launch a initiate its year-round, multi-year development drilling program.

"This is the culmination of five years of work and substantial effort from our Bill Barrett team, and the parties representing the BLM and archaeological, wildlife and wilderness interests who have together agreed on responsibly developing natural gas on the West Tavaputs plateaus," said CEO Fred Barrett. "We have enjoyed a very successful working relationship with all of the parties involved and believe we have set a collaborative and positive precedent for the future. This is an important asset in our portfolio, and we are very excited to proceed with our program."

Barrett and Utah officials -- including environmental groups -- late last year completed a landmark agreement to protect the state's cultural resources while permitting "orderly and environmentally responsible" gas development on the West Tavaputs Plateau near Nine Mile Canyon (see Daily GPI, Dec. 24, 2009). The agreement ended years of lawsuits and back and forth wrangling to protect the region while also allowing energy development.

The agreement and ROD were supported by the state, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and Carbon County, UT, officials.

Under the agreement, the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River would be protected from the "sight and sound" of industrial development even as gas reserves are extracted, basically requiring Barrett to drill under and not on top of the West Tavaputs Plateau. The Desolation Canyon portion of the Green River, considered one of the West's most iconic and remote stretches of river, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969. Because of its designation, BLM is required to manage the canyon to retain its remote and natural setting.

"The Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness area in Utah is one of the most remarkable, remote landscapes in the Lower 48 states," said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Energy Program Director Stephen Bloch. "By working with the Bill Barrett Corp., we have been able to protect and enhance this crown jewel of the public lands while allowing the company to achieve its goal of developing the natural gas resource.

"This also serves as a powerful example of the progress that is resulting from the constructive ongoing discussions between advocates for Utah wilderness and county commissioners, land managers and energy companies."

The agreement indicates that "there is room for both oil and gas development and wilderness protection, just as Ken Salazar said when he took the reins at the Interior Department last year," said Nada Culver, BLM Action Center director for the Wilderness Society, an environmental group. "We see this agreement between the conservation community and the Bill Barrett Corp. as a good model as we move forward with the new approach to managing oil and gas as just one of the many uses of our public lands."

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